Rita Garson, now 76, will celebrate her special day at CU Boulder with her sister, adult children and grandchildren, two of whom are also alumni
Like many University of Colorado Boulder graduating seniors, Rita Garson will have several friends and family in attendance when she participates in May commencement ceremonies on CU’s Boulder campus.
Her guests include her sister, her three adult children, including daughter Dr. Kirsten Nielsen, who is a CU alum, and her five grandchildren, including her 25-year-old grandson, Kyle Webber, who graduated from CU Boulder in December 2021.
Garson is 76 years old. That makes her the second-oldest person to obtain an undergraduate degree at CU Boulder, coming in just behind a 77-year-old woman who graduated with a degree in history in 1996, according to the CU Office of Data Analytics, which notes that its digital records only go back to 1988.
Officials with the CU Registrar’s Office and the archives division for the Norlin Library say they don’t have ways of easily identifying the school’s oldest graduates prior to 1988.
For Garson, earning her college degree was always the plan; it just took longer than she anticipated.
Asked what finally getting her undergraduate diploma means to her now—more than 50 years after she first started taking college courses—she pauses for a moment to consider.
“I’m proud of myself—that I finished and that I stuck to it,” she says. “It’s a feeling of accomplishment. And I really feel that it has broadened me and encouraged my sense of curiosity.”
Life got in the way
After graduating from high school, Garson attended the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, in the late 1960s. She took a few courses and earned 11 credit hours, but after meeting the man who would become her husband, she decided to elope and marry.
Later, Garson and her husband moved to northern New Jersey, where she enrolled in what was then William Patterson College (now William Patterson University). She accumulated an additional 81 credit hours.
However, after raising a family and later going through a divorce, her plans to finish college were once again put on hold. In the early 1990s, when she was hired by McGraw-Hill publishing and rose to become a vice president of marketing with one of its flagship publications, she briefly contemplated going back to school to become a doctor. But she decided she would like to pursue a career writing about the pharmaceutical industry.
Garson says she landed an interview with an Oregon-based trade magazine that reported on the pharmaceutical industry, but the owners of the business repeatedly told her how hard it was to understand the industry and how difficult it was to break into the field.
She was undeterred. Her response to the owners of the trade magazine was succinct: “You can’t tell me what I can’t do! Watch me!"
“So, I started my own company,” she adds with a laugh. “And I’ve been doing that job ever since. I had a love of the medical field—and still do. I love going to medical conferences and learning about the latest developments.”
She thought about going back to college then, but her top priority was helping to put her three kids through college, as well as concentrating on building her business.
“With or without a degree, I knew I was going to make it,” she says. “But it was important that my kids get degrees, given that their whole lives and careers were ahead of them. And so they did!”
In the late 1990s, Garson’s youngest daughter, Kirsten, moved to Colorado to attend the University of Colorado. Garson, who was living in Connecticut at the time, moved to Evergreen to be closer to family.
After establishing residency in Colorado, Garson says she decided it was finally time to return to college, so she enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder. Still, she says she wasn’t really sure what field of study she wanted to pursue. So, she took a variety of classes, including science and business courses, because she thought they would be beneficial to her as the owner of a medical publishing business. She also took women’s studies courses because the field interested her.
“I love learning,” Garson says. “I accumulated a lot of credit hours, but not all in the same field.”
She took courses off and on in the 2000s. However, a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease a few years back, combined with some helpful advice from her late brother-in-law, Richard Ellis, a professor at Washburn University, motivated her to concentrate on finishing her degree.
She worked with the Division of Continuing Education to come up with a plan (see related story, Finish what you started, below) to obtain a degree in distributive studies.
Mixed reactions to decision to finish college
Garson says her decision to finish her degree drew a mixed reaction from family and friends. Her family—especially her two daughters—were largely supportive, but she says some friends didn’t understand why it was so important to her, given her age and career success.
“Friends would sometimes ask me to go out to a restaurant for a meal, and sometimes I would have to say, ‘I can’t; I have to study,'” she says. “It was hard for some of them to understand.”
As for her classmates and college professors, Garson says they were very supportive.
“I had wonderful professors,” she says now. “And my fellow students were most encouraging.”
It was important to her that she apply herself to her courses, so she studied hard and earned a 3.686 grade-point average, Garson says, a detail confirmed by the Division of Continuing Education.
“I was going to do my very best; I enjoyed my classes, and I was going to get the most out of them—even if it meant that sometimes I had to make sacrifices,” she says.
Garson will celebrate her 77th birthday in August, but she has no plans to retire—or slow down—any time soon. Still, with the hard work of finishing her degree behind her, she says she plans to devote more time to doing the things she loves—traveling, skiing, horseback riding and enjoying time with her grandkids.
Her advice for anyone else who put their degree on hold: “Don’t give up. Finish it. Decide why it’s important to you, and then apply yourself. I did it for me … and I wanted my grandkids to be proud of me.”