Decades after leaving campus, Turgeon returns to UNK to celebrate lifelong goal
KEARNEY – It was one of Shirley Turgeon’s biggest regrets.
For more than 40 years, she questioned her decision to leave college without finishing her degree.
“It’s been on my mind my whole life,” Turgeon said. “When we left, I felt so bad. I wanted to complete it. All the years I just kept thinking about it.
“I want to go back. I want to go back.”
Last week, Turgeon returned to the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus for the first time in nearly five decades, concluding her academic journey and proving you’re never too old to achieve your dreams.
A Valentine native, Turgeon first enrolled at UNK in 1974, when the school was known as Kearney State College. She had already spent three semesters at Wayne State College, married her husband Daryel, who served in the Vietnam War, and given birth to their oldest child, Casey.
Daryel attended community college in Scottsbluff before the couple moved to Kearney so they could both continue their education at UNK.
A former softball player, she studied physical education with a coaching endorsement while working as a front desk clerk at the local Holiday Inn. He studied business and worked at the front desk of the Ramada Inn.
Their second child, Crystal, arrived in April 1976, making life even more hectic.
“You know how when you’re young and you’re tired of not having any money? We were in that boat,” Turgeon said with a laugh. “We were tired of not having any money. We were both going to school and we were both working, but we were struggling.”
When Daryel got a new job offer, the opportunity was too good to pass up. They relocated to Lexington and stopped taking classes, leaving Turgeon about 30 credit hours short of graduating.
BACK TO SCHOOL
An office/finance manager throughout her professional career, Turgeon took some community college classes over the years and even planned to finish her degree when the couple lived in Dodge City, Kansas.
However, her mother was injured in a devastating house fire, putting the focus back on family.
She didn’t revisit the idea again until 2020, when Turgeon reached out to UNK to see what she needed to do to earn her degree. Over a 14-month period, she completed six accelerated courses through the University of Phoenix and a community college near her home in Casa Grande, Arizona.
“It was tough,” said Turgeon, who’d never taken an online class before. “It’s hard when you get to this age. You don’t remember things like you used to.”
Luckily, she had some “really supportive people” to lean on. Her daughter Crystal was always willing to help with those tough math questions and her husband Daryel provided the encouragement she needed to keep going.
“Every time I’d go upstairs and say I can’t do this, he’d go, ‘I know you can,’” she said, pausing to wipe away tears. “He just kept saying, ‘You can do it. You can do it. Don’t give up.’”
Turgeon also received assistance from Olivia Whittaker, coordinator of academic support services in the UNK Registrar’s Office. Whittaker walked Turgeon through the entire process and helped her sign up for the classes she needed to graduate.
“I don’t know what I would have done without her,” Turgeon said. “Olivia Whittaker is amazing at what she does. When I reached out, she basically got everything in a row for me.”
Turgeon completed her coursework in December, but didn’t plan to participate in the commencement ceremony. The 72-year-old thought she might look “silly.” Her daughter strongly disagreed.
“She said, ‘Mom, you worked so hard, you’re going to do it. You have to do it.’ She was the one who pushed me.”
With Daryel by her side, Turgeon flew to Kearney last week and toured the campus they attended so many years ago. Needless to say, a lot has changed since 1976.
“I’m blown away. I cannot believe it,” she said. “I can’t even picture what was here before because it’s so amazing. There are so many new buildings and so many new programs, things that weren’t here when I was here.”
On Friday, Turgeon put on her cap and gown and joined hundreds of fellow UNK graduates inside one of those buildings. Her husband and four other family members were in attendance as she walked across the Health and Sports Center stage to receive her bachelor’s degree in general studies.
Instead of a regret, this moment marked one of her biggest achievements.
“It shows I can still accomplish what I want to do in life,” she said.