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Chasing a degree
Emma Gaskins, George Brannen return to GSU to earn degrees, a task each first started in the 1970s
NONTRADITIONAL Web 1
George Brannen, 64, center, chuckles at some ribbing by classmates during a critique session for his creative non-fiction class at Georgia Southern. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

       Both Emma Gaskins and George Brannen began their college careers in the 1970s, and both left school without earning a degree, only to return years later, determined to complete their journey for a diploma.
       Though Gaskins and Brannen have taken very different routes in life, each has landed back in the same place, enrolled in classes at Georgia Southern University after age 50.


Emma Gaskins
       For Gaskins, 52, the journey to obtaining a degree from Georgia Southern has been something of a bumpy road to travel. She first enrolled in 1978 but dropped out after her car was stolen.
       Her family's financial situation left her with no other way to get to class.
       She always knew she wanted to obtain a diploma but decided taking care of her family - she's a single mother and was a caregiver for her mother for 13 years - was more important.
       "Most of my life has been about my family," Gaskins said. "I put whatever it was going on with me on the back burner, and that's what I've been doing for years."
       But now, Gaskins finally has decided to make obtaining the degree she's longed for a top priority.
       She plans to graduate from GSU in December.
George Brannen
       For liver cancer survivor and transplant patient George Brannen, 64, returning to school is about personal achievement, keeping busy and staying sharp.  
       Brannen first enrolled at GSU in 1971 but left for Virginia Beach, then Florida, where he took classes at community colleges.
       "Then I just wondered around for a while," Brannen said. "I had a friend that was in the oil field business, and that's kind of where I ended up."
       Brannen made a comfortable living moving oil rigs in the Dakotas, Canada, Texas and other places around the United States. He worked in the industry for more than 30 years, and though he felt earning a degree would be invaluable, he put it on hold for work.
       "There's a price to be paid for everything, and when you work 24/7, seven days a week, you don't get to go to school, and you don't get to go fishing, and you don't get to do this, and you don't get to do that."
 
Motivation for learning
       Gaskins says her mother, who died in October 2009, had much to do with her going back to school.
       "She had no education at all," Gaskins said. "My mom couldn't read or write. For years, she couldn't do anything but sign an X."
       When Gaskins was in grade school, she would ask teachers for books the school wasn't planning to use again. She'd take the books home to show her mother everything she had learned. She helped her mother learn to write her name and taught her the alphabet.
       But Gaskins' father did not feel it was necessary for his wife to learn to read or write, Gaskins said.
       Once, when she was in fourth grade, she brought home a stack of books, only to be confronted by her father.
       "Dad said, ‘Where are you going with them books?'" Gaskins recounted. "Me and Mama are going to sit down, and we're going to read," the young girl replied.
       "Not in this house you won't," her father said.
       "I got a whooping," Gaskins said. "When he and Mama got through arguing, I noticed there was a fire in the fireplace, and I looked up, and all the books were in the fireplace burning."
       Gaskins says that seeing her mother vulnerable and dependent on others because she was illiterate inspired her to try harder and accomplish her academic goals.
       Though her father never came around to the idea of her mother learning to read and write, Gaskins said her dad was proud of her when she first enrolled at GSU, and she thinks he'd be proud of her today. 
       Brannen's motivation to return to GSU was all "a self-goal thing," he said.
       "I was working in mid-management and was in a corporate meeting one day," Brannen said, "and the president of the company was sitting there, and he said, ‘George, don't take this wrong, but all of us in here are educated' - meaning they all had degrees and I didn't have a degree.
       "How can I not take that wrong? I did take it wrong," Brannen said. "It wasn't a psychological attack on me, but it was like, ‘I'm the only one here that's not educated,' and I always wanted to be educated."
       Brannen is a cancer survivor and received a liver transplant nine years ago. A year after the transplant, he went back to work but was laid off after four years of employment.
       "I got mad for a while about being laid off, because I still felt like I was an able-bodied individual - and I stayed mad for about three or four months," Brannen said.
       He decided he could afford to retire but soon became bored with the notion.
        "I stayed retired for about six months," he said, "and I decided that I needed to do something."
 
Taking the first steps
       Both Gaskins and Brannen restarted their quests for higher education by attending Ogeechee Technical College in Statesboro.
       "When I first stepped back into (school), I was a little skittish about Ogeechee Tech," Brannen said, "because I hadn't been in an educated situation (in more than 30 years). I mean, I've gotten certificates and this, that and the other, but it's all been industry related.
       "I wasn't intimidated by the industrial world, because I know the industrial world; I was intimidated by the academic world, because I knew very little about the academic world," he said. "And it took me about six months to work up enough nerve to walk into Ogeechee Tech and say, ‘I think I'd like to go to school here.' But after I did that, it was easy. I think you have to get beyond your fear."
       Brannen earned an associate degree in information technology. He was encouraged to continue learning at Georgia Southern, and after discovering financial aid was available to persons over 62, he took the advice and re-enrolled for classes.
       Gaskins started school at Ogeechee Tech in 1994, where she attended classes through 1998. She earned an associate degree in computer information systems technology and diplomas in microcomputer specialist and business and office technology.
       She was a work-study student while attending OTC and was encouraged to go back to GSU by a pair of instructors.
       "I said, ‘I'm too old for that,' and they'd say, ‘No, you're not," Gaskins said. "Had it not been for those two persons, I'd still be trying to figure out where to go with a microcomputer specialist diploma."
 
Academic challenges
       When Brannen first started school, he felt there was a gap between his work and the work of other students.
       "I was going, ‘Man, all of these kids are so smart,'" he said. "My challenge is to bring myself up to their level. Academically, they're way ahead of me. I have to do extra work, extra reading and things like that. For me to sit in a 5,000-level class, that's something."
       Brannen said he feels all of his extra work has paid off, and he finally feels on par with his classmates.
       Gaskins, too, feels her age is something of an obstacle and finds herself struggling with finances. She uses student loans to help pay for her education and, like many Americans, is currently unemployed.
       "Being as old as I am, I feel a little out of place and kind of late, but I'm looking at it now as, better late than never," she said. "I feel a little outdated and out of place. But when you have an economic disability to being able to do things, and all the cards are stacked against you, you've got to kind of push your way through to get there.
       "That's been me," she said. "It's been financial. I've been struggling with financial stuff since I've been going."
 
Finding their passions
       Gaskins was employed doing house cleaning work on Hilton Head and Skidaway Islands in the mid-1980s. Then, after her marriage failed, her financial situation forced her to move back in with her parents in Statesboro.
       A single mother raising two young sons, Gaskins made her family top priority. She worked a series of jobs until finally finding work delivering meals to seniors and homebound residents in Bulloch County.
       "Some of (the residents) have nobody, and families for them are sometimes way off, and they don't come and visit. It's kind of like a heart-thing with me, just to do that for somebody and be a friend to them," Gaskins said. "I guess I found my niche at 52 years old. It took me a long time to get here, and now that I'm here, how do I use it? That's what I'm trying to figure out."
       Gaskins is pursuing a bachelor's degree in general studies with a concentration in religious studies. She hopes to find a job where she can help others with the knowledge she's gained on her journey through life experiences and post-secondary education. 
       When Brannen first attended GSU, he planned to major in English literature, but when he returned after his retirement, he decided he wanted to major in graphic design.
       However, "after a while, it just wasn't my calling," he said.
      He then tried the marketing route, before finally talking to someone in the general studies department.
       "They asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘Well, I think I'll do literature and writing and humanities," Brannen said.
       Brannen is considering a double major and plans to pursue a master's degree in English from Georgia Southern.
       "I have no intention of going back to work," he said. "I worked 35 years, and that's enough. Now, I want to do what I want to do."
       Instead, he would like to be a "perpetual student."
       "I go to school, and it feeds my brain, if you will. It inspires me. And I go fishing and have a good time, and I run around with my dog," he said. "Life's good."

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