92-year-old earns high school diploma

Photos courtesy of Hedi Rudd

After a seven-decade recess, Madison College 92-year-old student Sarah Wells will triumphantly receive her high school diploma on May 23 after a journey filled with challenges and setbacks.

Many family members and friends will come to Wells’ commencement in Madison to cheer her on, but it is Wells’ daughter Mary’s unwavering support that helped her mother earn a high school diploma.

“I do not know how many times we have given each other high fives because she has done it,” Mary says. “Our family from coast to coast are proud of her accomplishment, and she is going to have the biggest cheering section ever.”

The two percent club

Wells is in that special sliver of success who triumphed in Madison College’s GED/HSED programs. National statistics estimate of students who drop out of high school, only 2% return to earn their degree.

Last month, Mary picked up her mother’s graduation blue cap and gown. Wells smiled as she showed off the blue gown, adjusted the cap over her curled hair, put on a pearl necklace, and looked into the bedroom mirror. “I will have a lot of smiles on that day,” Wells says in anticipation of finally getting her diploma.

Wells moved to Madison in 1949, and at 16 years old, felt forced to leave school to assist her mother in her job as a cook at a sorority house on Langdon Street. When the principal told her to stay after school, Sarah left school and never returned.

Although she struggled with severe asthma in her school-age years and was committed to helping her family, Wells’ academic goals never diminished.

Last year Wells met UW-Madison professor Sandra Adell at a UW Odyssey Senior Program memoir writing workshop and she encouraged her to pursue her goals. “She told me that it was never too late to get my paper, and that is what pushed me,” Wells says.  That same day, Wells asked her daughter to take her over a few blocks to Madison College to begin her journey.

“She is the matriarch of the family and always puts the needs of others above her own,” Mary Wells says. “It has always been something that she has wanted to do, and I wanted to help her do it.”  

Earning her diploma

Wells enrolled in Madison College classes in the spring of 2023.

“Ms. Wells and her daughter came in person to meet with me, and you could tell they were both very motivated from the start,” says Monique Billings, an advisor/transition specialist in the School of Academic Advancement. “I was inspired by Ms. Wells’ determination and excited to support her through the process.”

The Madison College GED (Certificate of General Education Development) or HSED (High School Equivalency Diploma) helps students find success with resources for tutoring, childcare, mental health support and financial services.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Wells attended virtual math and science classes for four hours a day. She specifically remembers learning about the Big Bang Theory.

“That was an interesting class,” Wells says of learning the second time around. “This time in school, teachers took time with me. I did not have this the first time I was in high school.”  Wells praises all her Madison College instructors but has a special spot for instructor Tony Cina.  “My mom has been out of school for 76 years; Tony was able to relate to her and bring the lessons in a way she could easily understand,” Mary Wells says. “He is a phenomenal teacher.”

A Madison College first

Wells will make the record books when she graduates as the oldest student to earn an HSED at Madison College.  Being the first to accomplish something historic makes Wells think of other well-known Black women who did amazing things such as Harriet Tubman despite the challenges.  Wells’ triumphant quest for a high school diploma and the support she received transformed her life.  “It makes me feel that I am loved and that they care about me and want me to feel good about myself,” Wells says.

A celebration

Family members are flying in to see Wells graduate, and more will celebrate with her virtually. She is looking forward to a nice dinner and time to catch up with relatives.

Even into her ninth decade, Wells is often surprised when people half her age say it is too late to accomplish a bucket list item. Wells plans to celebrate her accomplishments by buying a nice frame for her diploma and hanging it in the honored spot next to her mother’s photo. But she will not slow down with plans to audit college classes, the possibilities are endless, Wells says.

“I am happy and pleased with myself. I hope this story will inspire other people to get their education. I want to take a course in Botany to learn more about the science of plants. I do not know where else I can go, but I am sure there is something else I can do.”