“Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high. And the dreams that you dreamed of, once in a lullaby. Somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly. And the dreams that you dreamed of, dreams really do come true.”
It’s only fitting that the sheet music to the classic “Wizard of Oz” tune rests on her living room piano because, these days, Joyce Sanders is living the words to her favorite song.
That’s because, at age 80, Sanders is now officially a graduate of Eastern Kentucky University. President Michael Benson led a contingent of University officials to Sanders’ home on a quiet Harrodsburg Street to present her with a silk EKU scarf and pin. A diploma will arrive soon, which Sanders is eager to proudly display.
In a life punctuated by unexpected turns and then a terrible family tragedy, Sanders never surrendered her hope of earning a college degree. She attended Eastern Kentucky State College from 1955 to 1958 as a physical education major, living in Burnam Hall – the only women’s residence hall at the time – and planning a teaching career. Her favorite professor was Dr. Fred Engle, the first generation of three Engles to teach at Eastern.
In 1957, Joyce Cornelius married her husband of 60 years, Nelson Sanders, and proceeded to take one class each summer for many years, driving from Harrodsburg to Richmond, in an attempt to finish her degree. Then, in 1978, the Sanders’ only child, Dan, became seriously ill with a form of leukemia. When he passed away two years later at age 17, a devastated Sanders put her degree pursuit on hold.
The lack of a degree, however, didn’t stop Sanders from teaching, in some way or another, for most of her adult life – on an “emergency” basis in Anderson County Schools, private kindergarten, Head Start, Kentucky School for the Deaf, adult education, and English as a Second Language classes to Japanese arriving in her town with new industries. She even tutored the wife of the Hitachi president, staying in their Japanese home for an “exciting” 10 days.
Aside from those responsibilities, Sanders continued to stay very active – with Daughters of the American Revolution, Eastern Star, Democratic Women’s Club, and her church, where she plays piano. She also walks at least a mile a day and plays bridge twice a week.
Still, something was missing in her otherwise full and rich life.
“It bothered me greatly that I didn’t have my degree,” she said.
So, in October 2016, Sanders stopped in the EKU Danville campus office, where she was met by academic adviser Susan Watson. Watson reached out to Lisa Cox, director of the Student Outreach and Transition Office, who then asked the Registrar’s Office to reactivate and re-evaluate Sanders’ transcript. The three worked together to update a complete degree audit and calculate a GPA for graduation purposes. (Formal GPA calculation began in 1963.) From the 131 total credit hours that Sanders had earned in the 1950s and through all those summers, it was determined that she was already eligible for an associate degree. So, 62 years after she began her educational journey, she was granted her EKU degree in May 2017.
“It just makes me feel better about myself,” she said.
So much so that she’s now considering resuming classes at EKU Danville toward completing a bachelor’s degree.
“Someday I’ll wish upon a star, wake up where the clouds are far behind me. Where trouble melts like lemon drops, high above the chimney top, that’s where you’ll find me. Oh, somewhere over the rainbow way up high. And the dream that you dare to, why oh, why can’t I?”
Sanders even composed a poem recently about finally reaching her goal. Fighting back the tears, she read “A Dream Come True” aloud to the EKU contingent assembled in her living room.
She concluded the poem with some advice for others like her:
“For those of you who haven’t finished your degree,
I’m making a plea: Don’t procrastinate like me.”
Inset photo: Joyce Sanders with EKU President Michael Benson