Grandma, 72, earns her first degree

Diagnosed with a learning disability, Claire Fournier overcame obstacles to achieve a lifelong dream, and she did it with honors.

Published May 3, 2005

SPRING HILL - Claire Fournier maintains she was just "a regular student" at Pasco-Hernando Community College.

But as she collects her associate in arts degree at graduation tonight, the faculty and staff are lauding her achievement.

Fournier, who raised seven children and has 13 grandchildren, turned 72 on her most recent birthday. She is graduating with a 3.5 grade-point average and is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society.

All that despite being diagnosed at PHCC with a learning disability.

Fournier is among a group of students who "demonstrated tremendous determination in earning their degrees," said Lynn Rothman-Venus, the college's director of public relations.

"I've always wanted to get a degree," Fournier said.

After 20 years as a Florida resident, she said, "I saw my opportunity and I did it. I am so thrilled about it. It is my dream come true."

A native of Canada, she dropped out of high school in the late 1940s.

"In those days, you just went out to work or got married, and so on and so forth," Fournier said. "I went to work at Kresge's."

She married John Fournier of Michigan, became a U.S. citizen in 1969, passed the GED exam, then went about rearing seven children. One is disabled, and she cares for him at their Spring Hill home. Her husband died in 1999.

"Now you know why I postponed going to school," she said.

Fournier subscribes to the left-brain tenet, thought to be the creative side.

"I am sort of an artist," she said.

She paints landscapes and pursues creative writing, and has had articles and poems published in various magazines and newspapers.

But the right side of her brain, the more informational and analytical side, fell short. Thus, in college, Fournier couldn't master her math courses, although she tried twice, even utilizing tutors.

"She made earnest efforts," said Reinhardt Thiessen III, coordinator of disabilities services for the school. "The way she was going, she was not going to be able to attain a degree.

"Processing disorders, difficulty encoding numerical information, it's a common complaint," Thiessen said, adding that 17 percent of the population has the problem.

Thiessen arranged testing for Fournier and ultimately took her case to the state Department of Education in Tallahassee to obtain a waiver for her math courses. She was allowed to take substitute science courses.

Those weren't easy, Fournier said. But after first enrolling at PHCC in 2000, she persevered, passing courses in environmental science, biology, oceanography and human biology - studying three or four hours a night, sometimes more, depending on the subject.

She breezed through drawing, art appreciation and creative writing, earning A's.

Age was never a factor in her college attendance, she said.

"The kids all think I'm in my 40s, which I think is great," she said. "I was just a regular student."

A son, Bob, and his wife, Becky, of Royal Oak, Mich., will be at Fournier's graduation. Son Chuck, who lives with her, will also attend. To celebrate after the 6 p.m. ceremony at River Ridge High School in Pasco County, "I hope to take them all out to dinner," Fournier said.

Among tonight's 525 graduation candidates are others who have overcome substantial obstacles to better themselves through education.

--Natalia Alvarez of Spring Hill, a hearing-impaired native of Colombia, required the assistance of a sign language interpreter to negotiate classes that have earned her an associate's degree in administrative office management.

Thiessen, the disabilities coordinator, praised the 21-year-old's accomplishment.

"It takes motivation, persistence and hard work and an effective self," he said.

Alvarez's career possibilities are not limited, Thiessen said, except where the necessity to hear is part of the job. With her degree, Alvarez and others with similar disabilities can work as counselors, executives, medical coders, transcribers, artists - any position in which interaction isn't required.

--Pat Cherne, 52, of Brooksville has attained a diploma in applied technology for medical coding. After working 18 years for a major banking corporation, she lost her job in a corporate downsizing.

A single woman with mortgage payments, she needed to recover income and health insurance. To get through the educational program in a year and a half, Cherne "dug ditches and cleaned office buildings," she said, to supplement her Pell grants and scholarships.

--Chris Watson, 54, of Spring Hill was child care director for the Hernando County Family YMCA but had to resign because of poor health from contact with sick children.

Cherne and Watson both have found jobs, after attaining certification, through the displaced workers program at Career Central. Both plan to pursue additional certification in medical transcription.

In the meantime, Fournier isn't about to rest on her laurels.

"I'm going to take a little time off," she said, "and then go back to take some classes toward a (bachelor's degree)."

--Beth Gray may be contacted at graybethn@earthlink.net