A 91-year-old woman graduated from Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont this month, making her the school’s oldest undergraduate of record and one of the oldest people in the world to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Rosemary E. Finnerty, a Palo Alto resident, earned her degree in Human Services, graduated summa cum laude and also received the university’s Inspirational Academic Excellence award.
The seventh of eight kids born into poverty in New York, Finnerty is the first one in her family to graduate from college.
“I was overwhelmed and I cried and I couldn’t even talk,” Finnerty said, describing the moment she received her degree. “My dream has been fulfilled.”
The graduation ceremony has been pushed back a year due to COVID-19, but university officials and her closest friends last week gathered in her driveway to surprise her with her academic awards.
Finnerty’s family also joined in on the celebration via Zoom from New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. Finnerty said she had lost touch with some of the family members with whom she’s been celebrating.
“[Getting my degree] has brought me back to my family,” she said.
Finnerty said she initially returned to school simply to continue learning, and was motivated by her academic advisor to also get her degree. She said courses on diversity and cultural studies were most memorable.
“I learned so much. It really opened my eyes to many things,” she said, referring specifically to courses on Latino culture. “When I was writing papers I was crying because I never realized what [Latin Americans] went through.”
Finnerty’s senior capstone project focused on bringing spiritual educational topics to elderly members of her parish who were homebound, according to a press release.
Finnerty said she appreciated being around students of all ages and from other countries while in school.
“One highlight was being with younger people and learning from them and having them learn from me,” she said, adding she made friends with students from Fiji and Saudi Arabia.
Finnerty’s career was as an executive assistant for Colgate-Palmolive and Hewlett-Packard. Former Colgate-Palmolive CEO Ruben Mark, once Finnerty’s boss, paid for her NDNU tuition out of pocket.
“I called him up to see if the company had an incentive plan for retirees and I said I want to go to school and was wondering if Colgate would sponsor me,” she said. “He said Colgate won’t, but I will.”
Finnerty took night classes for her degree, and they often relied on computers. Unlike many at her age, that wasn’t a problem.
“They said we’re computerized when I went back to school and I said that’s alright, I worked at Hewlett-Packard so I know computers,” she said.
Finnerty doesn’t want to stop learning after getting her bachelor’s degree. She wants to continue taking religious courses next, and is also currently working on her memoir.
Finnerty said she thoroughly enjoyed her time at NDNU and is sad to hear school officials are contemplating closing the more than 150-year-old institution. The school for years has faced enrollment and financial challenges.
“I’m doing everything I can to save the school,” she said.
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