At age 89, Mary Fasano graduated with a bachelor s degree from the Extension School last week and entered the history books as the oldest person to earn an undergraduate degree at Harvard. Following is the speech she delivered -- "The Power of Knowledge" -- at the Extension School diploma awarding ceremony:
I remember one night a few years ago when my daughter was frantic with worry. After my Harvard Extension School classes, I usually arrived at the bus station near my home by 11 p.m., but on that night I was nowhere to be found. My daughter was nervous. It wasn t safe for a single woman to walk alone on the streets at night, especially one as defenseless as I am: I can slay a mugger with my sharp wit, but I m just too short to do any real physical damage.
That night my daughter checked the bus station, drove around the streets, and contacted some friends. But she couldn t find me -- until she called my astronomy professor who told her that I was on top of the Science Center using the telescope to gaze at the stars. Unaware of the time, I had gotten lost in the heavens and was only thinking about the new things I had learned that night in class.
This story illustrates a habit I have developed over the years: I lose track of the time when it comes to learning. How else do you explain a woman who began high school at age 71 and who is graduating with a bachelor s degree at 89? I may have started late, but I will continue to learn as long as I am able because there is no greater feeling, in my opinion, than traveling to a faraway country as I have and being able to identify by sight the painting of a famous artist, the statue of an obscure sculptor, the cathedral of an ancient architect. I have found that the world is a final exam that you can never be prepared enough for. So I will continue to take classes and tell my story.
Lately it seems that everyone is asking me, "Mary, what advice do you have for other students?" So while I have you all here, I m going to ease my burden of answering you each individually:
If the saying is true that wisdom comes with age, you may safely assume that I am one of the wisest people in this hall and possibly at this university today. So listen to me when I tell you this: Knowledge is power.
My studies were interrupted when I was in the 7th grade, back sometime around World War I. I loved school but I was forced to leave it to care for my family. I was consigned to work in a Rhode Island cotton mill, where I labored for many years. I eventually married and raised 5 children, 20 grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren. But all the while I felt inferior to those around me. I knew I was as smart as a college graduate. I knew I was capable of doing a job well -- I had proved it by running a successful family business for decades that still exists. But I wanted more. I wanted to feel confident when I spoke and I wanted people to respect my opinions.
Does it surprise you to discover how much you have in common with an 89-year-old woman? I know that many of you graduates today, whether you were born in 1907 or 1967, have faced similar barriers to completing your studies and have sometimes felt inferior around those you work or socialize with just because you didn t have a degree.
But I am here today -- like you are -- to prove that it can be done; that the power gained by understanding and appreciating the world around us can be obtained by anyone regardless of social status, personal challenges, or age. That belief is what has motivated me for the last 75 years to get this degree. It is also the mission of the Harvard Extension School. Without the support I received from this school, I might not have graduated until I was 100 -- a phrase that many of you have probably used in jest.
There are many students here who do not have the opportunity that I do to speak their minds and have everybody listen, whether they want to or not. But be assured, fellow graduates, that we are more similar than you might think. If you have treated education as your main goal, and not as a means to an end, then you, too, have probably been claimed as a missing person once in your academic career, whether you were lost in the stars or the stacks of Widener Library.
And you, too, know that the journey was worth it, and that the power of knowledge makes me the most formidable 89-year-old woman at the bus stop.