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N.J. Grandmother Earns Her Degree After Five Decades

Graduate Spotlight: At age 72, Rosalyn Coppola graduates from Montclair State University

Posted in: University

A young woman adjusts her mother's graduation stole.
Mary Lyn Coppola ’16 MAT presents her mother, Rosalyn Coppola, with a stole signifying Rosalyn’s achievement in completing her college degree.

Rosalyn Coppola, a 72-year-old grandmother who has been taking college classes over the past five decades, will finally walk across the stage for her diploma on May 13 at Montclair State University’s Commencement. Now, she says, she has a joyful response when her grandchildren ask, “Grandma, are you graduating from college?”

Enthusiastically, she tells them, “Yes, I am!”

Coppola’s commitment to lifelong learning, her tenacity and youthful spirit helped pave the way for this milestone as a member of Montclair’s Class of 2024. She is among 18 students earning the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies through the University’s Degree Completion Program, a pathway for adults to return and earn their college degree.

Coppola will participate in Commencement at Prudential Center in Newark. But ahead of the pomp of the big ceremony, she had the opportunity on May 4 to commemorate her achievements with family and her four grandchildren at a send-off celebration held on campus for this year’s Degree Completion Programs’ graduates. Family members presented stoles to the graduates to wear over their Commencement regalia and reflected on their journeys as returning students known as “some college, no degree.”

“Their hard work and persistence brought these students to this moment,” says Jane Sanchez Swain, assistant director for Degree Completion Programs. “It wasn’t easy, it took long nights, early mornings, and stretching themselves between family responsibilities, work obligations, and everything else life brings.”

A group of 12 graduates stand on a staircase.
Members of the Class of 2024 Degree Completion Program.

Coppola’s journey started 53 years ago. Married to her high school sweetheart, Dennis Coppola, she worked in the fashion industry in New York City after earning an associate degree in Fashion Merchandising at Berkeley College. After the birth of their first daughter, Deena, she took a job closer to home and enrolled in Caldwell College’s education program.  She continued going to school when her son, Dennis Jr., was born by taking him with her to class. “He would sit there and listen,” she says.

The years went by, her children Christopher and Mary Lyn were born, and Coppola balanced raising the family with teaching religion to school-age children at their church and working as a school paraprofessional. The home was filled with music: Elvis, Connie Francis and beloved melodies of the ’50s and ’60s. While Coppola, off and on, continued taking college classes, all four of her children would go on to earn advanced degrees.

A Montclair connection began in 1980 when her husband, a former Teacher of the Year, earned his master’s degree in Counseling, Human Service and Guidance. When their daughter Deena, then attending Berklee College of Music in Boston, enrolled in Montclair summer classes, her mother decided to join her. Mary Lyn would earn her Master of Arts in Teaching in 2016.

Coppola began to regularly come to campus in 2018, two years after her husband passed away, for classes offered through the Senior Citizen Learning Program. “I thought the younger students would ignore me or make fun of me, but they didn’t. Everyone was so nice,” she says. “It made all the difference.”

A grandmother in a cap and gown plays with her grandbaby and older grandchild.
Rosalyn Coppola plays with her grandchildren on May 4 during a send-off celebration for Degree Completion graduates and their families.

Coppola was taking a computer class when COVID-19 struck, and luckily so, because those skills would help as classes moved online. She was beginning to question if she would ever graduate, when she learned about the Degree Completion Programs.

That program, fully online and scheduled in eight-week terms, provides maximum flexibility for adults while allowing for an accelerated degree completion timeline along two tracks: Humanities Concentration and Education Studies Concentration.

“Rosalyn is a reminder that it is never too late to work toward your dreams and that you can absolutely do what you put your mind to,” Sanchez Swain says.

Coppola hopes to use her BA in Liberal Studies with the Education Studies concentration to pursue a role in fashion design or art education. But first, after working for years at her dining room table, her laptop and papers scattered all around her, “I can’t wait to clean up.”

Graduate Rosalyn Coppola and her family.
Rosalyn Coppola’s family joins her to celebrate her graduation.

Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren. Photos by John J. LaRosa for Montclair State University.

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