COOKEVILLE – When Barbara Fenlon graduated this Saturday, Dec. 17, she had experienced Tennessee Tech as a mother of a student, as an employee of the university and now finally as a graduating student herself.
Fenlon first came to Tech in 1973 to start a degree in pre-nursing. She wasn’t very far into her studies before she realized nursing was not for her. She changed her major to business administration, but even then, she struggled to adjust to college life.
“I was majoring in parties and sleeping,” Fenlon said with a laugh. “After two years, I had a 2.0 grade average. I decided I was just wasting my parents’ money. I moved back home and worked for a year in a bank in downtown Nashville.”
After that, she became a legal secretary for a while and then managed rental property for 12 years in Cookeville. When her own son, Drake, decided to attend Tech, Fenlon got a job as an administrative assistant in Tech’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.
“Academia rubbed off on me,” she said. “Towards the end of the spring 2014 semester, I decided I wanted to learn math. I applied for admission, was accepted and had my first meeting with Tammy Keylon, then an advisor at the College of Interdisciplinary Studies. She was very encouraging and said I could take any course I wanted, but why not work towards finishing my degree.”
Fenlon focused on two topics, exercise science and business management. She had worked as an administrative assistant for various businesses and now at Tech, but also was interested in exercise and taught local fitness classes in her free time.
She got to work, sometimes taking two classes a semester, sometimes taking only one, and sometimes not taking any at all because of her hectic schedule. However even when completion of her degree seemed a long way off, her colleagues kept urging her not to give up. She especially thanks Satish M. Mahajan, the Director of Tech’s Center for Energy Systems Research, where she now works, for pushing her toward her degree.
“I’ve had a lot of cheerleaders while working with electrical and computer engineering professors,” Fenlon said. “As soon as they found out I had gone back to college, they asked me about my classes all the time. Working on this campus encouraged me and kept me in it.”
She also thanks her son, Drake, who helped her master the technology she needed to use when classes temporarily went digital in 2020 due to COVID-19. Even though he had already graduated and moved away by then, he spent a lot of time making sure she was successful as well.
“There were many times I’d video chat him on my phone, prop it up on a shelf behind me so he could see my computer, and then have him walk me through what to do,” she said.
Her fellow students have been a big support to her as well. Instead of shunning her because of their age difference, they embraced her presence and enjoyed working alongside her. In her speech class, Fenlon presented a persuasive speech titled “Why You Should Stay in College.”
“I told them, ‘I didn’t finish college obviously, because here I am in a speech class with you 19 and 20-year-olds. Dropping out then didn’t stop me from being successful, but nowadays you cannot be successful without a college degree.’ I told them all about my early college adventures, but then I said, ‘I told you all that to tell you this – don’t be the 60-year-old in your speech class,’” Fenlon laughed. “We had so much fun in that class. My group won the speech contest, and I was the speech student of the year.”
Fenlon’s family and friends are looking forward to celebrating with Fenlon at a reception at her church as well. And this time instead of a 2.0, her grade average is a 4.0.
“I’m so glad I finished my degree,” Fenlon said. “I didn’t need it for my job. I don’t need it for another job. I don’t plan on going anywhere else. But it’s just good to know that even though I dropped out the first time – I finally finished.”