Administrator Credits University with Fulfilling Dreams of Degree

By Karen Clos
April 4, 2023

For many people, the day of their graduation is the stuff of which memories are made. Invitations are sent, special outfits are planned, families are gathered, and coursework, including finals, are blissfully concluded.

Kathleen McDonald, 60, knew very well the significance of commencements. She had been a student at Central Texas College and had earned her associate degree there, and, as a staff member, she spent decades encouraging students toward degree completion.

But, on this warm May evening almost one year ago, she was not working at graduation. She was attending her own.

She had seen enough graduations to know the order of things: graduates arrive, assemble, march in the processional, cross the stage, and, for those receiving their graduate degrees, they are ‘hooded’ when an academic stole is lowered over their head and around their shoulders by a chosen member of the faculty.

Administrator Credits University with Fulfilling Dreams of Degree

Kathleen McDonald.

She had taken the official photo and returned to her seat on the floor, holding her degree in her lap, admiring the pomp and circumstance: the stage festooned in crimson and navy, the stage party, themselves in their formal graduation robes, the remaining students lined up and crossing the stage as she did.

It was that moment, she said, when an overwhelming feeling of gratitude swelled up silently inside her. Like so many others, she had traveled a long, and sometimes unpredictable path to be where she was. But, as justified as it certainly would have been, she wasn’t thinking about all of the moments between where she began and where she was now that was resonating within her.

It was a profound sense of gratitude for the place that made this moment possible.

“I am not usually an overly emotional person,” she confessed. “But I realized that something had been accomplished that I had never thought would happen. I had completed my graduate degree, and it was the University that had made that possible.”

Her daughter, she remembers, could tell that something was different about that moment – and she didn’t have to be seated next to her to notice that her mother was tearing up.

“Anyone who has ever lived in a moment where their wildest dreams have been exceeded will know how that moment felt,” she explained.

“I had an associate degree, and that led to an undergraduate degree,” she continued. “And that was magical in and of itself because it had been possible because of simple acts of kindness and encouragement that guided me. And those things carried me forward to the moment when I was sitting there with more than I ever dreamed possible.”

She had traveled a long road, no doubt. But the guideposts of the most significant moments were marked, as they sometimes are, by fate, coincidence, friendships, and persistence.

“My mother didn’t just ‘believe’ in education,” McDonald said, as if tenderly holding the image of her mother in her mind as she spoke. “She was determined that we would do well. She even moved our family to a different city so that we would be nearer to the public schools that had a reputation for providing a first-class education.”

Decades later, she says, she had moved to Killeen with her family and – in the days before internet – she found herself casually browsing through a magazine offering careers compatible with, of all things, astrological signs.

“It said that I would be perfect as a DJ at a radio station,” she said. “But the coincidence was that I had always been interested in radio, television, and film!”

Made of stoic and realistic stuff, McDonald hesitates to assign her decision to pursue that degree to a zodiac sign; instead, she thinks, it was a spark of inspiration – one piece of a puzzle that would complete itself one piece at a time – over the next 25 years of her life.

“I enrolled in the RTF program at Central Texas College and that experience brought me to my love for film, and how beautiful an art form it is,” she explained. “Before that program, I had no idea the details that went into film making: the light, the angles, the screenplay, the staging techniques, the sounds … all of it.”

While there and in the years that followed, McDonald accomplished plenty: an internship as a student in the department, then a coordinator and manager for public television and planned giving, and finally, a staff member for the CTC Foundation.

As the years passed, she had considered the possibility of getting her undergraduate degree. But, at that time, she says, there was no local public option that didn’t require an hour commute each way between the university and home.

But her goal, she says, never expired. There was no online degree programs then, she remembered. Just 100 miles of highway between the universities to the north and south.

As fate would have it, she says, there would be an unexpected intervention. By just the right person.

“I was working for the Central Texas College Foundation, and U.S. Army (Ret.) Gen. Pete Taylor and I were working on the Shoemaker High School Scholarship,” she said.

“And when we completed our business, he sat with me, and asked, ‘Kathleen, why aren’t you in the director’s office?’”

Now, as anyone who has ever been on the business end of a general’s purposeful inquiry – even the most benevolently intended – will attest, there is no such thing as a rhetorical question. His interest, she knew, was like everything else he did: purposeful.

“Like a lot of people in our community, I’ve been blessed by his wisdom,” she said, smiling affectionately. “And I couldn’t have predicted it, but he had found the answer that I had been looking for, and it was right here in our own community.”

Once again, fate intervened. When she shared the challenges involved in not having access to a local, public university, she might as well have been speaking her own future into existence.

“He told me that A&M-Central Texas was created just for people like me,” she remembered. “And as soon as I heard the name ‘Texas A&M,’ I was all in. My associate degree credits transferred right in and by 2017, I had completed it.”

Her time at the University was not over yet, she laughed. In fact, as things turn out, after almost 20 years at CTC, she joined the staff at the University, becoming a coordinator in the financial aid office. Today, she is the assistant director of development.

Her life experiences, her professional acumen, and two of her three degrees – both earned at A&M-Central Texas – offer her significant insights as she works side by side with donors, scholarship recipients, and alumni.

“One of the things I hear from former students is the milestones they reached that told them that they were valued and capable,” she said, describing the week before she earned her graduate degree.

“It was only a week before commencement, and I had been told that I had been named Outstanding Graduate Student Award in the College of Arts and Sciences Liberal Studies Program,” she confessed, describing the gratitude and inspiration so present in that moment, too.

Today, she says, she pays it back, being there for current students, encouraging and mentoring in the same way so many did for her. And at a time when it is not uncommon for people of a certain age to be closer to retirement than they are to another degree, McDonald, 60, now sees opportunity where she once found obstacles.

She is exploring the possibility of pursuing a doctorate in film studies part-time, she explained, inspired by the College of Arts and Sciences Dean, Allen Redmon, Ph.D.

“I loved the coursework that is a part of our graduate degree in English,” she explained. “It is thorough and has so many different creative viewpoints to explore. The faculty knew what my interests were and encouraged me to weave what I was learning from and with them into my own academic interests.”

Regardless of whether or not another degree is on the horizon for her, MacDonald says one thing is for sure: her life is irrevocably better because of the University that found her.

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