Mae Wilson, age 71, to receive her degree from Three Rivers Community College

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Mon., May. 13, 2013
Mae Wilson, age 71, will fulfill a lifelong dream when she receives her degree in human services from Three Rivers Community College June 1. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Mae Wilson, age 71, will fulfill a lifelong dream when she receives her degree in human services from Three Rivers Community College June 1. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

Lillie Mae Wilson went to a segregated public high school in Mississippi. Her all-black school provided textbooks for its students, but not the required workbooks the local white students at other schools received. She graduated in 1959, just two years after eight African-American teenagers like her ran the gauntlet of racial hatred to break the color barrier at an all-white high school in Little Rock, Ark. She herself never saw an integrated classroom until she married and moved to Connecticut.

Now, just two days before she turns 72 years old, Wilson will receive her associate’s degree in human services from Three Rivers Community College. It’s an achievement spurred in part by her early education. “You see things are not going right [because of segregation] and you want to do something about it,” she said.

Wilson has been taking classes toward her degree, one at a time, for years, starting when Three Rivers was at its Mahan Drive campus. Her momentum stalled at one point when she hurt her hand, but after a long hiatus, one day she decided, “This is about me. I need it because education is important. If you have a good education, it would give you a better outlook on life. Education is powerful.”

As a young woman, Wilson was busy raising a family and working for Jaypro, a manufacturer of sports equipment in Waterford. But she never really stopped learning. She had no money for college, so she sought out workshops and educational talks, especially those offered through her church, Shiloh Baptist. She made sure her three sons focused on their own school work and got their own high school diplomas, which she still keeps as treasured documents.

But in the 1990s, when she was denied a pay raise at work, she realized that taking classes could change that situation. “I told [my boss] I wanted to go to school but I couldn’t afford to go to school. I asked him if he would help and he said yes. He paid for my first class – I think it was English.”

So began Wilson’s path to a degree. “I was leaving work two days a week. I would be on campus for two hours. I would work till 4:30 and come home and take care of my family. I tried to be a part of my children’s life, part of the sports activities at school.”

One of Wilson’s professors, recognizing the wealth of her life experience, urged her to complete an Assessment of Prior Learning to document the skills she had acquired, the workshops she had attended and the life lessons she had learned. It was a huge undertaking, Wilson said, but it enabled her to earn college credits for what she had already achieved. Her folder of documentation is thick with certificates, letters and records of what she picked up in the school of hard knocks.

Human services was a natural degree path for her, since she had long been active in community ministry as a deaconess at Shiloh Baptist, along with her husband, Earl, who serves the church as a deacon. Wilson initiated a program in her church called Sister to Sister, ministering to pre-teen and teen girls, helping them make wise life choices. She also helped with the church Sunday school. Service is important to her: “once you give something, you feel better,” she said.

Many senior citizens are intimidated by computers, but that didn’t faze Wilson, who had made their acquaintance at work. Still, she said, she did most of her school computer work in the library.

While Wilson has long since retired from the working world, she is busier than ever. She and Earl are active on a national level with the Baptist Church deacons, and locally she works at the New London Meal Center, helping serve meals to more than 100 people each day. While her work there can include wiping down the tables and sweeping the floor, she spends most of her time interacting with the clients. “The way the economy is going now, with no jobs, some of them want to work and cannot find work,” she said. “I tell them, ‘Don’t lose hope. You’ve got to be focused.’”

Wilson said that people of her age, or even older, shouldn’t hesitate to take classes or work toward a degree. “You can expand your knowledge base just through daily living, and the mind isn’t wasted,” she said. “However, pursuing higher education is a wonderful privilege. To have the opportunity to improve one’s mind is always a blessing.”

Those who doubt whether they can do it, she said, “should just put their low self-esteem aside and have more confidence in themselves. You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it and you really want it. You’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror and talk yourself into it,” she said.



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