Worth the wait: Irene Garrison graduates from UMSL after nearly 60 years – UMSL Daily

Irene Garrison graduated with honors and her BA in French from UMSL after working for 56 years toward her college degree. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Irene Garrison’s father had always wanted her to go to college and tried to save up for it, but he died before he could make that dream come true. So Garrison, a determined woman, decided to put herself in school – one class at a time, for almost 60 years.

With patience and immense tenacity, Garrison, who began his studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 1966, graduated last month with honors with a baccalaureate in French at the age of 85.

Irene Garrison is a graduate of UMSL. (Photo by UMSL Office of Executive Events)

Garrison was born in Shanghai, China to a Russian mother and a Polish father. They had met and married there after fleeing their country of origin to escape war and revolutions. Garrison’s father, an accountant who was fluent in several languages, was able to start supporting his family there.

In 1949, the Garrison family was evacuated from Shanghai to escape the impending communist takeover by Mao Zedong, and taken by the International Refugee Organization to Tubabao in the Philippines and placed in a camp for Polish, Russian and Jewish refugees. They had to wait two years to find out where they would be placed and ended up in St. Louis.

Garrison’s father stayed behind because he had had concerning chest X-rays and was therefore detained. Sponsored by a Polish family, Garrison, her mother, and sister moved to North St. Louis to share a room in a women’s apartment on Maffitt Avenue.

Saint Louis embraced the family.

“It was very welcoming,” Garrison said. “When I started school, all the students came to my desk and greeted me in one way or another. They said, ‘Welcome, we’re so glad to have you here.’ And I’ve had these friends ever since. We still meet.

Garrison’s father eventually joined the family in St. Louis but died a year later. Garrison was then a sophomore at St. Alphonsus Rock High School, and her life in general became more difficult, including figuring out how to pay for her education. She remained focused on her studies, and her school helped her find a part-time job as a clerk at what was then known as Barnes Hospital.

She worked from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. three days a week and on Saturday mornings to help her family with expenses. It was during this time that Garrison met her husband, Arnold, whom she married right out of high school.

Garrison’s then-widowed mother was raising two children in the 1950s, which was not easy. But they had support, and no matter what, things always seemed to work out.

“My mom had friends who helped her,” Garrison said. “With the help of friends and angels, she made it. It just amazes me how she did that.

After high school, Garrison began working as a hospital secretary. After her marriage, she got another job with Ramco in St. Louis, but had to give up her job when she reached the six-month milestone of her first pregnancy. Garrison therefore became primarily a stay-at-home mom, although she later worked weekends at the Jewish Hospital in the X-ray department as a clerk.

Irene Garrison receives her diploma from Acting Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Frank Grady, at the December 2022 graduation. (Photo by UMSL Office of Executive Events)

In 1966, when her daughter was a bit older and she had a 2-year-old son, she decided to go back to school and enrolled in college for the first time. With two young children, one class was all she could manage. His first course at UMSL was Psychology I.

“There were only two buildings there at the time,” she said. “One for the administration and the other with the classrooms.”

She continued to take one course per semester until 1972, when her husband’s job moved her to Jefferson City, Missouri. She then enrolled at the University of Lincoln, taking a few courses in English and literature.

A few years later, Garrison and her husband moved again to Chillicothe, Missouri, where there was no college, so she had to interrupt her studies. She got another job at the hospital as a medical records transcriptionist. A colleague suggested she take a test to become a coder, and she took a two-year correspondence course. She had to take the exam in St. Louis and passed it.

In the late 1970s, Garrison and her husband moved back to St. Louis, where she worked at DePaul Hospital as a medical coder. After several years without going to college, she looked forward to resuming her studies at UMSL, continuing to take one course per semester.

It stopped again around 1990 because professional and family obligations had become more demanding.

“With new advances in medicine, procedures and everything, there was a lot of study for my work,” she said. “So I had to suspend my studies at UMSL for a while.”

Although all the delays were heartbreaking, Garrison never gave up on his pursuit of a degree. She would not return to UMSL until 2018, after her retirement, and again, taking one course per semester, she finally made it all the way without a break.

She achieved her dream for herself and her father, whose wish for her to go to university was a source of motivation. His faculty advisors, Sarah Klekamp and Violaine White, also helped Garrison stay on track. She also warmly acknowledges her husband, Arnold, as a key source of support and inspiration.

“He deserves a lot of credit, or most of the credit, because he supported my curriculum, my meltdowns and all those things,” she said. “All the hours I spent staying up late at night studying.”

Nearly 30 people, including Garrison’s family and neighbors, who had rooted for her and helped her create her UMSL account so she could study virtually, gathered at a restaurant in her neighborhood of O’Fallon, Missouri, to celebrate his decades-long achievement.

Garrison was born with determination, and while others have viewed her long pursuit of a college degree as a feat of tremendous determination, her view is more simplistic.

“I’m just finishing what I started years ago,” she said. “I just wanted to do it. I always finish what I start.

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