Photo of M Shirley Martin in processional May 2024

Now or Never

Student Stories
May 28, 2024
M. Shirley Martin finished her bachelor's degree after a decades-long break
Photo of M Shirley Martin in processional May 2024
Photo of President Lapidus and M Shirley Martin
President Lapidus hands M. Shirley Martin her diploma cover at the undergraduate commencement ceremony on May 18.

M. Shirley Martin was a non-traditional student when she began pursuing her bachelor’s degree. She was recently divorced with two young children, and was looking to broaden her career prospects with some additional credentials.

She completed a degree at Mount Wachusett Community College, sometimes bringing her young kids with her to class. Then she moved on to Fitchburg State to pursue her bachelor’s degree. But she had a hard time balancing her obligations.

“I panicked in the middle of midterms,” she said. “I didn’t stop to think, ‘Let me seek counseling at the school.’ I just felt I needed a break. I told my advisor I’d come back next semester. But the next semester didn’t happen.”

That was 1978. Martin raised her children, remarried, and built a meaningful career in human services, working for a variety of agencies in leadership and support roles including seven years in grant administration.

Most recently, she has worked as an Army Reserve employment specialist for a Department of Defense contractor. That cause itself is important for her as a longtime supporter of the military (including her son, Nathan Wilder, himself a colonel in the Massachusetts Army National Guard and a 1996 alumnus of Fitchburg State).

While Martin found meaning in her work and family, which grew to include grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she never shook a sense of unfulfilled ambition.

“In 2018, I told my husband, ‘It’s now or never,’” she said. “I was 71 when I came back to school.”

She started with an online class, to get her feet wet. “I just wanted to pass, just to come through the other end with a degree,” she recalled. “Then I started to taste a little success.”

I told my advisor I’d come back next semester. But the next semester didn’t happen.

M. Shirley Martin

She got a B in that first class. She was afraid of a required statistics class, but applied herself and tackled extra homework assignments to keep that grade up, too.

Martin enjoyed working with her younger classmates, who offered occasional technical assistance and yielded to her years of practical expertise when it came to group projects. “What I did find out about myself was I was not great at working in groups unless I could take the lead,” she said.

She also credited faculty members for supporting her navigation of the human services program. “They made it very doable for me,” she said. “My husband couldn’t believe how invested our professors are in making students successful. They made it exciting, and they’ve helped me to learn about myself. I can see how I’ve grown.”

Following her internship this past semester with Pathways for Change, Martin got to finally cross the stage and receive her bachelor’s degree. Her family was on the quad, cheering her on in person. Meanwhile, only one thought was crossing through her mind: “This is happening. Just don’t fall.”

With her degree now complete, Martin is not prepared to rest on her laurels, as she still has ambitions to do even more on behalf of her clients. “I’m looking to go for my social worker’s license.”