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Completing a college degree is important at any age, and two December graduates of East Central University are prime examples. Circumstances in their lives prevented Patsy Kay Mills, 65, of Shawnee from completing her education for a number of years and actually allowed Briana Dirrim of Ada to earn a bachelor's degree at age 19.

Mills received a master of education degree in secondary education from ECU on Saturday [DEC. 12]. Dirrim earned a bachelor's degree in mass communications/print-electronic media.

Mills first enrolled at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee in 1962.

"I went sporadically for awhile," she said. "I had a little more than two years of college and could qualify for a pretty good job. It was not such a problem then, if you didn't have a degree."

She had worked in the social work field for eight years when the requirements for employment became stricter and she needed to go back to school.

"That didn't work out," she said.

Among East Central University's December graduates are Patsy Kay Mills (left) of Shawnee, who just received a master's degree at age 65, and Briana Dirrim of Ada, who completed a bachelor's degree at age 19.
Among East Central University's December graduates are Patsy Kay Mills (left) of Shawnee, who just received a master's degree at age 65, and Briana Dirrim of Ada, who completed a bachelor's degree at age 19.

Mills had married along the way, later had a son and was a stay-at-home mom for awhile. When her husband became ill, she cared for him until his death in 1994. Her son went to Cornell University in 1998, so she enrolled at St. Gregory's University in Shawnee.

"I took two stabs at that and completed my bachelor's degree in social sciences in 2002," she said.

She credits her professors at St. Gregory's and ECU for encouraging her to finish both degrees.

"They (at St. Gregory's) had a way of talking to you -- you felt better about yourself," Mills said. "They made you kind of look forward instead of thinking of yourself as older. I was kind of excited."

She enrolled at ECU in 2003 to start work on a master's degree. She also worked as a family service counselor for a funeral home for about a year. Then she quit to care for her mother for several years and the progress toward her master's degree "started dragging."

But she got going again after she ran into a former professor who thought Mills had finished her master's degree and after talking with a woman in her 50s who had recently completed a master's degree.

"I went back in the history and political science areas at ECU," Mills said. "They are very kind people. They were so nice and geared programs to challenge me."

She does not plan to teach, however. She is in her fifth year supervising court-ordered visitations of non-custodial parents and their children for Youth and Family Resources Inc., part of Youth Services of Oklahoma.

"I'm very happy in what I do," she said. "I had wanted to be in social work again and this worked out after I started my master's degree. That's what I love."

Mills said her son, who has a master's degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, wanted her to finish her master's degree. One reason she pursued it was to set an example as a parent of finishing what she started.

"But I feel better for me," she added. "It's just a good feeling. God helps you get through things."

While Dirrim is not the first 19-year-old to earn a bachelor's degree at ECU, her story is a little different. She attended ECU for four years and did not double up on classes to graduate ahead of schedule. She just started early.

From 1994, when she was 4, until 1998, she lived in Haiti with her parents, David and Sarah Dirrim, and two brothers. Her father was the administrator of the Cap Haitien Children's Home operated by the Southwest Church of Christ in Ada. Her parents later adopted three Haitian children and her mother home-schooled all six siblings.

Sarah Dirrim has a bachelor's degree in elementary education from ECU and once taught at Byng High School. Her father attended ECU and her two older sisters, Jezula and Lillian, also graduated from ECU.

"Haiti has a different school system," Briana Dirrim explained. "It's all based on memorization and taught in French. I went to a private school in kindergarten, but it's expensive and only goes to the 8th grade."

Between 1998 and 2000, the family lived in Tulsa, Columbia, Mo., and Ada and the children went to public schools. They returned to Haiti in 2000 when her father became the director of a preacher training school in Cap Haitien. They moved back to Ada in 2005.

"My mom's a really good teacher. By having fewer students, she could focus on us more," she added. "If she was busy, I had a row of teachers above me, my older siblings."

Besides her school work, there was not much else to do in Haiti, she said.

"In home-schooling, you go through things a lot faster. You don't have to wait on anyone. You do it as your own pace. It took about three hours a day to finish all my school work. I just finished early," she said.

Back in Ada at age 15, Dirrim enrolled in nine hours at ECU as a concurrent student -- a high school student taking college courses. She took college algebra to fulfill high school math requirements while also earning college credit. The next summer she tested out of English Composition I.

She became an ECU freshman at age 16.

"If I had been just one year older," she said, "it would have been easier (to be admitted to ECU). I had to take the residual ACT test again and I had to interview with people to see if my academics were in order and if I had the social skills, if I could handle going to college, keep my grades up and go to class.

"In home-schooling," she explained, "I made my own schedule. It was my responsibility to get my stuff done. A lot of it was just teaching yourself -- which is very useful. In college, you have to do that a lot."

Dirrim has moved to Tulsa and hopes to work in graphic design for a photography studio.

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