The road to the Winter 2023 commencement ceremony was not a short or easy one for Stephen Wells. A self-described “hick” from Oklahoma, Stephen took his first college class in 1972. He joined the Army soon thereafter, and found himself moving around the country, ultimately landing at Fort Devens in Massachusetts.
He was medically discharged in 1980 with a permanent disability related to a traumatic brain injury. Though unable to work, Stephen’s mind could not be contained. He tried to resume his studies, this time at Fitchburg State, but health issues got in the way of his coursework, and his degree plans took another pause.
"I promised myself years ago that I would finish school, but life got in the way," he said.
A few years ago, Stephen decided to finish what he’d started, and complete a college degree as his wife and children had done before him. Fitchburg State was just coming out of the pandemic, with coursework being offered simultaneously in person and online. Still dealing with the effects of a stroke in 2017, It was a daunting challenge.
At his age, Stephen didn’t like to ask for help. But Fitchburg State became a haven. He was accepted by his classmates, who took him under their wing and showed him the particulars of attaching files to an email. The staff in the campus library showed him how to use the electronic databases at his disposal. And his faculty were inspiring, teaching him about history he had lived through but never fully understood.
"I am amazed that they have accepted me,' he said. "The students probably look at me as their grandfather. Almost all my professors are my son’s age, so I’m their dad, basically. I don’t mind, because I’m able to bring a different role to the class. I have different stories to tell than they do."
While his community welcomed him, his medical challenges continued to interfere. He had major surgery in October, missing more crucial time in class. But Stephen was not about to quit again. He had cultivated his love for writing, and was keen to improve his skills.
On Dec. 22, at the age of 70, he completed his bachelor’s degree in English Studies. He’s regaining his strength, and continues to work toward the goal of improving his craft as a writer. He plans to continue his studies in graduate school, figuring, at his age, he’s got another 20 years to produce his best work.
More than 400 graduate and undergraduate degrees were conferred in December 2023. Stephen Wells' story was shared as part of President Lapidus' remarks to the graduates and guests.