“Just Keep Trying”: Great-Grandmother Earns Master’s Degree At 89

A military spouse and breast cancer survivor, Joan Donovan wants to show people it’s never too late to keep learning.

Joan Donovan


This year, an 89-year-old great-grandmother spent the holidays in Florida wearing a cap and gown.

Joan Donovan and her family recently celebrated the achievement of her latest goal: a Master of Arts in English and Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). She is SNHU’s eldest 2022 graduate.

“I’m a goal-seeker,” Donovan said in a statement to SNHU. “And it was a goal, and I reached it. It’s a dream come true, really.”

Donovan has always had a passion for learning. Described by her mother as “brilliant,” she said she started first grade at just four and a half years old and graduated high school at 16. But when it came time for college, her family didn’t have the money for tuition.

So, life happened. Donovan got married, raised six children, and her academic dreams fell by the wayside. It wasn’t until her kids were grown and had moved away that she revisited the pursuit of a higher education.  

“I said, ‘why not?’ I’ll try it. I was terrified, but I loved it,” the octogenarian recalled. “I got up in the morning just anxious to get to school.” 

Donovan soon earned an associate degree from a community college. Then, at 84 years old, she received a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college. “Then I said, ‘why not keep going?’” she explained. 

A military spouse and breast cancer survivor, Donovan is using her creative writing degree to write an autobiography about her life. She also wants to show people it’s never too late to keep learning.

“Just learn everything you can every day,” Donovan said. 

“I was afraid to try college,” she added. “So I say, ‘try things.’ If you fail, try it again ... but just keep trying.”

Congratulations, Joan!

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