On her first day of college, Kay Mullally had the same butterflies every freshman does. As she walked into English 101, she wondered if she would fit in.
“I felt like an interloper,” she said of her first day.
It was a strange feeling to walk onto a college campus, Mullally said. She was taking on an experience seemingly reserved for 20-somethings. It had been 41 years since she had last stepped foot into a classroom.
At 58, the longtime Winter Park resident decided it was time to go back to school. One class at a time, she did it. And on Saturday, at age 74, she’ll be the oldest graduate at Rollins College this year.
“I was unprepared for how I would feel about this,” Mullally said. “It is suddenly dawning on me that I really accomplished this.”
Mullally’s parents hadn’t gone to college and weren’t supportive of moving on to higher education. And in 1954, when she graduated from high school, things were different.
“You either went to college at 18 out of high school or you didn’t go,” she said.
“Basically the door was shut,” said Mary Franceschini, Mullally’s daughter, of Oviedo.
So she didn’t go to school, but she started a life, marrying a Marine officer and having five children. Mullally developed her own respect for education, and she and her husband expected all of their children to get a college degree — it wasn’t a discussion, rather an understanding, Franceschini said — and they did.
After pushing and paying five kids through college, she decided it was her turn. After that first English class, Mullally discovered she had a passion for writing, and will graduate summa cum laude from the Hamilton Holt School with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in creative writing.
When she began, Mullally worried about how other students would see her. Being treated like the mom of the class was her biggest concern, but that never happened.
“Kay is the kind of student who made her age irrelevant,” said Maurice O’Sullivan, one of her English professors. “I have students half her age who lack her energy, focus and willingness to engage themselves.”
But she was never a “flashy” student, and made everyone her friend, regardless of age.
“The best thing about her is the way she makes other students better, not only as a model student, but as a supporter of the other students,” O’Sullivan said.
As a sophomore Mullally began working in the school’s writing center, spending two years helping guide other students with their writing and papers. That supportive side might be partly owed to her experience as a mother to five, and grandmother to seven — one reason it took 16 years for her to get her degree.
Another was that Mullally wasn’t working for the degree, but the experience. Being surrounded by an academic environment and getting an “education for education’s sake” was important to her.
“I belong to the use-it-or-lose-it philosophy,” Mullally joked. “It challenged my mind in every way I could think of … my mind is not afraid to go anywhere, try anything.”
“My mother is a living example of being a lifelong learner,” Franceschini said.
And Mullally said she’s become a different person because of going to college. She’s got a thirst for the “unusual” and knows that the confidence she’s gained through her education will allow her to do anything she wants in the future.
“She’s young at 74 because she’s kept her nose to the grindstone and continued to grow,” said Dan Mullally, Kay’s husband.
She hopes her journey can show others to not be afraid to take chances and try new things. And for senior students her advice is the same:
“Just take a deep breath and do it — don’t be afraid.”
If Kay Mullally has inspired you to go back to college and you’d like to check out Rollins College’s Hamilton Holt School, which specializes in serving working adult students, visit www.rollins.edu/holt