12:26 PM

Grads With Grit: UHD's Oldest & Youngest Graduates Show That Age Has No Boundaries

Gregory Pierce and Joanna Fernandez are living proof that it's not about age … it's about attitude. Both are graduating from the University of Houston-Downtown this spring as the oldest and youngest bachelor's candidates.

At age 69, Pierce will earn a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies. Fernandez completes a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice at only 19 years of age. Despite a 50-year age difference, they share a passion for education and will walk the stage during UHD's 64th General Commencement Ceremony at 11 a.m., May 26 at Minute Maid Park.

Pierce began his freshman year of college in the fall of 1967 at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California. By the spring semester, he became engaged. He would soon become a husband and father. While taking time out from school to start a family, Pierce enlisted in the United States Air Force (USAF). He was stationed in San Antonio, Denver, and North Carolina before volunteering to serve in Southeast Asia. His talents working on planes were utilized during Operation Iron Hand and Operation Linebacker (two prominent USAF missions during the Vietnam War).

Following his time in the military, Pierce worked in Silicon Valley as a hardware engineer. He would resume his education on and off through the years. Professional obligations, however, often took priority over his academic aspirations.

After more than four decades of marriage, Pierce lost his wife. As he puts it, he had shared a room with his twin brother growing up and shared a room with his wife for more than 40 years.

"Having my own room wasn't for me," he said.

He reconnected with a childhood friend, Virginia Rigby, who also was widowed. He moved to the Houston area to reunite with Rigby and ultimately marry her. She works at Lone Star College - North Harris campus and inspired him to return to school. The rest is history as Pierce completed his associate's degree and eventually transferred to UHD. He credits the Univesity's accessibility and affordability for helping him get through his bachelor's degree. He also is impressed by the UHD's faculty.

"We have some great professors here," he said. "They're not easy. My strategy was to show up for class ready to learn and turn in my assignments on time."

Pierce isn't quite done with UHD yet. He is looking into its Master of Arts in Teaching program with the goal of one day helping students the way UHD professors helped him.

For those who may feel that college has passed them by, Pierce offers these words of encouragement.

"Don't see yourself as limited," he said. "Life is an ongoing learning project. If you want an education, go get it."

Fernandez' higher education journey began at the age 14. She attended Alief Early College High School. Students at that institution are enrolled in both high school classes and Houston Community College (HCC) courses. When she graduated from high school, she received a high school diploma and an associate's degree from HCC.

Fernandez' interest in law enforcement inspired her to enroll at UHD. The University's noted Criminal Justice Program, within the College of Public Service, appealed to her because it was close to home and near the city's law enforcement agencies and court system.

"I like helping people," said Fernandez, a first-generation college student. "I've had friends who have gone through the criminal justice system and they are now marginalized. They are unable to move forward with their lives. I want to be able to support those who may not feel that they have a voice in society."

Fernandez would like to apply what she learned at UHD to a career in either Child Protective Services or Adult Protective Services. After volunteering at a senior living facility in Alief, she was inspired to help underrepresented populations. Likewise, she was motivated by caring for her grandmother, who struggled with dementia.

Next up for Fernandez is a possible internship with the Harris County Sheriff's Office and possibly a master's degree at UHD.

Her advice to others who are deciding whether to attend college?

"Keep at it and stay focused," she said. "Attending a college or university is an investment in yourself."

Pierce and Fernandez are prime examples of Gator Grit and reflect UHD's commitment to its transfer students. Through partnerships with community colleges, such as HCC and LSC, students have opportunities to seamlessly transition from associate's programs into undergraduate majors at UHD.