Campus: CSU Fullerton -- May 26, 2004

Honoring a Grad Who Spent Half a Century Pursuing Her Degree

“Joining Continuing Learning Experience was to be my reward,” reports Colleen Howard Hefley, a proud member of Cal State Fullerton’s Class of 2004, having earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration – finance.

The 70-years-young graduate, who will be recognized at the university’s May 28 Honors Convocation and take part in commencement exercises Saturday, May 29, is this year’s recipient of CLE’s annual award to one of the oldest graduating seniors “who reflects CLE’s appreciation for learning and achievement.”

Listed in the commencement program as a cum laude January 2004 graduate, Colleen had pursued her degree intermittently since 1955. As the completion of her studies drew near, she marched over and joined CLE “to stave off withdrawal symptoms.”

Established 25 years ago, CLE is a self-governing university support group of approximately 750 retired and semiretired individuals dedicated to the pursuit of lifelong learning. It offers a variety of classes, travel and other activities and is headquartered on campus in the Ruby Gerontology Center.

Colleen moved to California when she was three. She was born in Oklahoma, where her grandmother taught school for 60 years. Once she graduated from San Bernardino High School – fourth highest in her class – UCLA beckoned.

However, her parents were reluctant to see their only child living alone in Los Angeles. So after a year at San Bernardino Valley Junior College, Colleen joined the work force at Pioneer Title Insurance Co., where she worked for about two years. While there, she met and married Lee Hefley, just out of the Navy in 1953. After attending Art Center College, Lee spent 37 years as an engineering designer at Hughes Aircraft in Fullerton.

In 1962, the family – with a son and daughter ages 7 and 2 years, respectively – moved to
Fullerton, where Colleen continues to reside. She had been taking GED courses since their first- born was a year old.
She planned to become a teacher, but eventually realized that she wouldn’t finish in time to start a career. Undaunted, Colleen began studying to become a library technician after serving for six years as a volunteer at the Rolling Hills PTA Library. This, too, proved less than feasible when combined with caring for the family, which came to include both of her parents. Compounding her difficulties was the gradual onset of a hearing loss.

At some point, Colleen met with a counselor who reminded her that there are better reasons to get a degree than just to prepare for a job. “College work expands horizons, gives new depth to our view of the world,” he pointed out. Colleen had not thought about that aspect of learning. “Pursuing a degree fosters self confidence,” the counselor emphasized.

“And besides,” Colleen says, “learning is fun.”

That’s when she decided to get a degree anyhow, job or not. She first attended Fullerton College, then transferred to Cal State Fullerton in 1994. Two years later, she faced another roadblock — her husband was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and died in 2000.

Because of her late husband’s four-year illness, Colleen took a leave of absence from classes with just 24 units to go. After his death, when she thought of returning, the required number of units seemed overwhelming. Nevertheless, she returned with a reduced study load, focusing on one semester at a time.

Now, CLE has begun to fill Colleen’s days. She continues to appreciate the Grief Support group members at Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton for their kindness and support.

This year has been a banner year, Colleen reports, with more credits in the happiness column than she had anticipated. There’s the diploma with all the years of work it represents; the GPA of 3.74 echoing her superior accomplishments in high school so long ago; and then the CLE award, a happy surprise. Then, too, there’s Becky, her step-granddaughter, with a 4.0 GPA in her freshman year at Cal State Fullerton.

Contacts: CLE, (714) 278-2446

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