MURRAY — If Lisa Hall Nord could talk to her 20-year-old self, she'd tell her to follow her dream of studying graphic design in college and to complete her associate degree.
As she reflects on her earlier life, she acknowledges she wasn't highly focused on a particular academic goal the first time she went to college.
"I was going to college to get my Mrs. degree," she said.
She dropped out a couple of classes shy of an associate degree to get married. She and her husband had a son and a daughter and settled into family life. For 14 years, Hall Nord was a stay-at-home mom.
That changed when after 22 years, their marriage ended "suddenly and unexpectedly," Hall Nord said.
Hall Nord became a single mom who worked a number of paraprofessional jobs in schools, but they were not jobs that had a future, nor was she passionate about the work.
Her son, Alex, suggested that she return to college, but Hall Nord was not convinced she could do it.
"Your self-confidence is just shattered when you go through a divorce," she said.
But Alex, who was attending Salt Lake Community College at the time, was persistent. He helped with admissions, applying for financial aid and nudged her to try again.
She jumped in carrying 12 credit hours her first semester in school, including a dreaded math class.
Hall Nord earned a 4.0 GPA that term and she got the highest score in her class on her math final.
"I was pretty excited. I restored a little bit of that lost confidence," she said.
One semester propelled her to complete another, although Hall Nord said there were times "every semester" that she wondered if she'd be able to complete her work and achieve the grades she wanted.
Even as she attended school full time, she was mom to Alex, now 21, and her daughter, Chloe, 15.
Tuesday was her final class, and she had to present her design portfolio. She told her son that she wasn't sure she'd be able to complete it on time and it might derail her graduation.
As he had so many other times in the 2 1/2 years it took Hall Nord to complete three associate degrees in visual art and design, graphic communications and general studies, Alex urged her on.
On Friday, Hall Nord will graduate from Salt Lake Community College as one of seven Graduates of Excellence. According to data provided by the college, nearly 3,300 students will be awarded degrees or have been approved for future graduation. The youngest graduate is 17 and the oldest 70.
The distinction is "humbling" because she knows many other SLCC students who have overcome great challenges to earn their degrees, Hall Nord said.
Hall Nord counts many supporters who helped her complete her degrees. Her children have been her constant cheerleaders. When she lost her house to foreclosure, her parents bought it so she and her children could continue to live there. When they didn't have enough to eat, the neighborhood and her church stepped up with donated food. SLCC provided a grant to Hall Nord for her last term of school when she ran out of financial aid.
"One professor, Jessica Curran, consistently showed me encouragement and support as a student even when I wasn’t currently enrolled in one of her classes," Hall Nord wrote in the essay that accompanied her Graduate of Excellence application.
"You know that expression it takes a village to raise a child? It takes a village to get a middle-aged woman through school, too," said Hall Nord, 52, in an interview Wednesday.
In her field of study, there were few similarly aged students.
"I was definitely old enough to be everybody's mama," she said. Sometimes, that was a little isolating.
But she took great pride as she completed one semester after another. "That sense of accomplishment after 16 weeks is so morale lifting," she said.
On her very first day at SLCC, in that math class no less, she looked around the classroom and observed that everyone else was trying to fit in and adjust to college as well.
Hall Nord said it occurred to her that she had one thing going for her that none of her younger classmates had: life experience.
"It was daunting to think of starting over at midlife and I wasn’t sure I could do it. As a nontraditional student at SLCC, I was initially concerned about being able to keep up with students half my age. But life experience had taught me the value of a strong work ethic and I worked hard to earn straight A's my first semester," she wrote.
As graduation approaches, Hall Nord said she feels a little sad because "now, I don't want to be done with school. I love learning."
Next week she has a job interview and she sees many possibilities for a bright future.
She encourages others to try even one class at a community college if they think they might want to return to school. "If you don't like it or it's not for you, that's OK, too," she said.
Everyone should apply for financial aid because it makes college possible for many people who don't think they can afford it, she said.
As for Hall Nord, she plans to attend Utah Valley University next fall with the goal of obtaining a bachelor's degree in fine arts. Returning to SLCC allowed her to transfer credits to UVU where she started her first associate degree, and she's completed her associate degree in university studies from UVU, too.
Commuting to Orem and continuing to rear her teenage daughter will be a next-level challenge, but Hall Nord's said self-confidence has been restored.
"I know I can do hard things," she said.