Two stories of determination reached a happy conclusion last month during Clarion University’s commencement ceremony, when Nathan Griffin and his mother, Phyllis, both received undergraduate degrees in liberal studies.

Both overcame challenges to reach their goal of a college degree—Phyllis, who started at Clarion in 1973 and left to get married; and Nathan, who had to sit out a semester and earn money so he could return to Clarion from his native San Antonio, Texas, and finish his degree.

NATHAN AND PHYLLIS GRIFFIN across from Founders Hall at Clarion University.

“This means so much to me, my mom is a great mom,” said Nathan. “I will be accomplishing what she told me I should accomplish and having her reach her goal at the same time is tremendous.”

Phyllis was relaying the feelings of her mother to her son. “My mother told me I would never go back when I quit in 1978,” said Phyllis about the diploma she will receive. “I am really happy to be doing this, but I don’t want to outshine, Nathan, because I am really proud of him. He has always been a good student and a good person. It means everything to be graduating with my son because he had some struggles while he was finding himself in college. He is my youngest and he means everything to everyone in the family.”

Phyllis was originally from New Brighton, where she still has relatives, and came to Clarion University as a special education major. She earned 102 credits, 18 short of graduation, between 1973 and 1978. She met her future husband, Morris Griffin, also a Clarion student, and both of them dropped out of college to get married.

Morris and Phyllis went on to raise three children, Noelle, who attended Columbus State College in Georgia, Greg, who is attending University of Texas at San Antonio, and Nathan. Morris completed a degree in business with a major in management in 2007 from University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, and is employed as a quality engineer for Sikorsky Aircraft. Phyllis works with the homeless for First Presbyterian, San Antonio.

Nathan accepted a football scholarship from Clarion, returning to his parents’ roots in western Pennsylvania. “I liked the commitment coach Malan Luke and Clarion University showed to me by offering me a scholarship,” he said. “I wanted to finish college here to make sure the family had a legacy at Clarion.”

Joining the football team, Nathan earned two letters with the Golden Eagles before academic issues prevented him from playing. It was one of the “downs” in what he refers to as an “up and down” career at Clarion.

“I am finishing on an up,” he said. “I came to Clarion ready to spread my wings. I got by for three years and then I slipped up and lost my scholarship. I had to stay home and go to work if I wanted to finish. I figured out that with the changes taking place in society that I needed a college degree. I came back to Clarion to finish with a no quit mentality and had a 3.0 grade point average my last two semesters.”

Phyllis found her inspiration from a story in the July 2008 issue of the Clarion University magazine, Clarion & Beyond, concerning the graduation of Reggie Wells Sr. and Reggie Wells Jr., both of whom left Clarion before completing a degree, but returned to achieve that goal. The Griffins had attended Clarion with Wells Sr. and his future wife, Diane, a 1990 Clarion graduate.

“That inspired me,” said Phyllis. “I decided I could graduate with my son.”

After making some contacts, Phyllis applied and was accepted into Clarion’s online liberal arts degree. “I loved online classes,” said Phyllis. “If they had online classes when I was going to college I probably wouldn’t have quit. I didn’t like going to class. Online is convenient, you go when you can. I did homework in the middle of the night and it was wonderful. I would recommend it to everyone, particularly if you don’t like to go to class.”

Phyllis took classes in women’s studies, taking inspiration from the online teaching of Dr. Deborah Burghardt, director of women’s studies, and Dr. Donna Ashcraft, professor of psychology. “I plan to use what they taught me in my work with the homeless,” said Phyllis. “I want to be kinder and more understanding and the courses I took will help me with that.”

Nathan plans to return to Texas and seek certification to teach history or geography and coach football. He credits Dr. Gerald Thomas, professor of geography, as being a major influence for him, and Dr. Brenda Dede, assistant vice president for academic affairs, as being like a mother away from home for him. “He has been so knowledgeable,” said Nathan about Thomas. “That’s why I have geography as a minor. I learned so much from him, including some help with finances.”

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