CU Boulder student finishes degree after 58 years at age 76

More than five decades after she enrolled in her first college course, Rita Garson is about to achieve her lifelong goal of becoming a college graduate.

Garson didn’t need to go back to college. She had a successful career and life, working for multiple companies before she started her own medical publishing company, all while raising three kids and becoming a grandmother.

Garson said going back to school to get her degree is something she wanted to do for herself.

“It’s for me,” Garson said. “It’s not for anyone else except for me.”

At 76 years old, Garson will be the second-oldest person to obtain an undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado Boulder since 1988. She comes in behind a 77-year-old woman who graduated in 1996, according to the CU Office of Data Analytics. The office’s digital records only go back to 1988, and any prior records are not readily available.

“There’s this idea that the only goal of higher education is graduation, and to me, that’s just a milestone,” said Dawn Fettig, associate director of academic advising for the College of Arts and Sciences.

“The goal is to engage in your community, it’s to engage in your responsibility as a citizen to learn more, to develop yourself. So to see someone who doesn’t need to do this but wants to continue that personal growth, that personal journey … is great.”

Garson said it’s “satisfying” to know she’s one of the oldest CU Boulder graduates.

“I wanted to help myself and not listen to anyone else saying that it wasn’t important,” Garson said. “It was important. Maybe not to them, but to me it was important.”

Lisa Warren, one of Garson’s close friends, said she’s “so proud” of her for graduating and can’t wait to attend the ceremony on Thursday. Warren said the two talk daily and she knows Garson’s daily life, when she struggled, was tired with running a company and doing schoolwork while also being a grandmother and mother. She also said she’s seen Garson’s excitement and resiliency.

“This has been a lifetime goal of hers and she reached for that goal and didn’t give up,” Warren said. “Even though it has been hard at times to get the classes done and to meet the requirements that needed to be met, she never gave up. I’m extremely proud of her for sticking with it.”

Garson began her college career at the University of Miami in the mid 1960s after graduating high school. She took a few classes, but at 18, she decided to elope and marry her husband, whom she met at college.

Garson and her husband moved to New Jersey where she enrolled in William Patterson University and took more classes.  After being married for 13 years, Garson went through a divorce and became a single mother.

“When I was married, my ex-husband really resented the fact that I was going on and getting my education,” Garson said. “He would put obstacles in my path, like I would have everything lined up for dinner on a picnic table outside and I was going to go take an exam and he whipped the tablecloth off and everything flew all over.

“And I went and took the exam anyway, and then came home,” Garson said.

Garson worked for McGraw-Hill publishing as a vice president of marketing before starting her own medical publishing company called Medco Forum. She stopped attending school so she could put her own kids through college.

When her youngest daughter started college at CU Boulder, Garson moved to Colorado and established residency. Garson started taking classes again, this time at CU Boulder, during the pandemic.

While taking courses at CU Boulder, Garson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. This made taking courses online difficult as she had trouble typing, and night courses even harder because she couldn’t drive at night.

“You get these challenges in life you have to overcome,” Garson said, later adding, “I don’t let Parkinson’s or my age or any of my disabilities define me.”

Ann Herrmann is the program manager and academic advisor for the Finish What You Started Program. She said Garson is an inspiration and a role model, especially for women. Garson took many women’s studies classes, is an advocate for women’s rights and has marched in Washington D.C and New York.

“It broadens you, education. It makes you get out of your small, tiny circle,” Garson said. “I would like to encourage other people to follow their dreams and finish what they started.”

Garson will be graduating Thursday with a distributed studies degree in sociology. She plans to continue running her company while also getting her real estate license and taking time to travel, ski and ride her horses on her ranch in Evergreen.

“I just think she should be an inspiration for others that leave school and life happens, it doesn’t mean you can’t go back,” Warren said. “And I think she personifies that, that there’s never a reason to not go back.”

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