Graduating magna cum laude with a 3.64 GPA —and a 4.0 in her final semester— she became the oldest graduate in the university's 144-year history.
For Donzella Washington, December 6 was about paying tribute to her beloved late husband's memory. For her daughters, it was a day to celebrate the strong, resilient, and hardworking woman they had the honor to call their mother. They watched with pride and joy in their eyes as their 80-year-old mother walked onto the stage at Alabama A&M University in her graduation robes and collected her bachelor's degree in social work, making history in the process. Graduating magna cum laude with a 3.64 GPA —and a 4.0 in her final semester— Washington became the oldest graduate in the university's 144-year history.
"I want to inspire and motivate others that age is not a barrier. And I want to emphasize the life between the dash," Washington told Good Morning America. Dedicating her degree to her husband of nearly 50 years, the Los Angeles native added, "I wanted to finish in his honor." This decade has been an extremely difficult one for the mother-of-two as she lost three of the most important people in her life. Following her mother's death in 2010, Washington had barely come to terms with her loss when she had to lay her sister and husband to rest within a 3-year-span.
Although it was a very trying time in her life, she decided to go back to school with the knowledge that her husband Jeff —one of her biggest supporters— would've wanted her to do so. "My father was my mother’s No. 1 fan. He supported everything she did, especially returning to school. Although my father did not have a traditional college education, he knew the value of gaining one," revealed her daughter, Kimberly Washington. "I have seen her work tirelessly to achieve this dream and to finally be there to see her was a very proud moment," she added.
Washington's decision to get her degree in social work can be traced back to her life in Pixley, California, where she lived on a farm with her husband and fostered about 30 children —including a group of six siblings in the 1970s so that they could stay together. She later moved to Montgomery, Alabama, in 2012 with her daughter who helped her mother through the grief of losing her husband. "The most challenging part has been consoling her when she was missing my father most ... those moments when she cries and all I can do is hold her and love on her," said Kimberly.
While Washington graduated from Alabama A&M University with flying colors, she had a rough start to academics in life. Having grown up with a stuttering problem, for years she believed she wasn't as smart as her sisters and it was only when she began taking speech classes more than a decade ago that she realized her true potential. Encouraged by her improved speech, she picked up social work and business classes one-by-one at Lawson State Community College. She then transferred to Alabama A&M University with a scholarship and has no plans of slowing down any time soon. The mother-of-two is currently toying with the idea of going back to school to obtain her master’s degree while providing volunteer service wherever necessary.