For Sheila Foertsch, 64, a college degree was just a matter of time.
On Friday, when she received her diploma from Spokane Falls Community College, she proved the old adage true: You’re never too old to stop learning.
And this wasn’t the first time she’d achieved a degree as a nontraditional student.
Twenty-six years ago, with two children from a previous marriage and a 4-month-old daughter from her second marriage, she attended Highline Community College, south of Seattle.
At 38, she felt the time was finally right for her to pursue her educational goals.
“I always wanted to get a degree,” she said.
Even a surprise pregnancy didn’t slow her down. At 39, she had another daughter.
“I had to have a C-section and my friends brought my books to the hospital, so I could study for midterms,” Foertsch said.
She went on to graduate with honors and looked forward to continuing her studies to earn the bachelor’s degree she had her heart set on.
But that dream would have to wait. Shortly after earning her associate of applied science degree, she came home to an empty house. Her husband had taken everything of value, including their van, and moved across the country to “find himself.”
She was 40, she had three kids at home, “and $10 to my name,” she said.
For many years, Foertsch scrambled just to survive and care for her children.
After moving to Spokane in 1993, she worked at a variety of jobs, struggling to stay afloat financially as a single parent. And then her 14-year-old daughter got sick. Really sick.
“Meghan was in so much pain. She was too sick to go to school,” Foertsch siad.
Despite numerous medical tests, doctors couldn’t discover the cause.
“She ended up completely paralyzed,” said Foertsch.
Finally, Meghan was diagnosed with reflex neurovascular dystrophy, which causes pain in children’s joints and muscles.
The complete paralysis didn’t last, but Foertsch spent countless hours fighting for proper care for her daughter and put many miles on her car taking her to Seattle Children’s Hospital for treatment.
“My identity became taking care of Meghan.”
So, when her daughter got a job and moved out at 18, Foertsch was forced to forge a new path. She moved to San Diego with her younger daughter for a time, but then that daughter moved out and married.
She returned to Spokane and spent 2014 trying to decide what to do with her life now that she was no longer the primary breadwinner and caretaker for her family.
She kept busy volunteering at Union Gospel Mission and Anna Ogden Hall, but retirement didn’t suit her.
“I hated it,” she said.
Plus, she’d never completely abandoned her dreams of continuing her education. So at 62, Foertsch enrolled at Spokane Falls Community College.
She found she was far from the only older student. In 2014-2015 Spokane Community Colleges (SFCC and SCC) had 2,272 students older than 65; 986 age 60-64; 1,039 age 55-59 and 1,118 age 50-54.
Polly McMahon, social services/gerontology instructor at SFCC, said older students typically fall into three categories: They’ve been injured on a job and need to pursue work that isn’t physically taxing, they’re professionals seeking to earn a degree for career advancement or to change careers, or lastly, McMahon said, “There are people who it’s just their turn.”
That description fits Foertsch, who excelled academically.
“I love to learn. I love to read. I love research,” she said.
She admitted to first-week-of-school butterflies.
“At first I was super nervous,” she said. “But I’m in the social services department – you don’t meet mean people there! After a few days I felt completely comfortable.”
McMahon said nontraditional students have much to offer.
“They have leadership skills and organizational skills. They’ve survived the school of hard knocks,” she said. “I’m humbled every single day by the courage it takes for them to be here.”
Foertsch quickly made friends with her fellow students.
“My best friends are a 21-year-old gal from Reardan and a 39-year-old guy from Rwanda.”
Her passion has always been to help others – especially women and children who’ve been exposed to domestic violence.
“I’ve been there,” she said. “I know they can do more than just survive.”
In fact, she’s already helping others. In January, she started mentoring students as part of a program at SFCC.
“I love it,” she said. “It all comes back, whatever I give – it comes back threefold.”
When a representative from Whitworth University came to speak to her class, Foertsch realized her lifelong dream of earning a bachelor’s degree was actually attainable.
In August she’ll start classes at Whitworth as part of a continuing studies program between the two schools.
“I learned I can take my passion and earn a little living, ’cause I don’t need a big one,” Foertsch said.
And she’s not ruling out pursuing a master’s degree.
Whatever she decides, McMahon is confident her student will succeed.
“I’ve been so impressed with her,” she said. “In 20 years I’ve never failed at identifying someone who is going to be successful, and she is one of them. Her life has been transformed, and she’s going to transform other people’s lives.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.