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UF student overcomes adversity to earn bachelor’s degree at 52

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – After decades of putting a dream to earn a college degree on hold, Alicia Thomas, 52, will accomplish her life goal this spring by earning her bachelor’s in family, youth and community sciences (FYCS) from the University of Florida.

Thomas will join more than 700 students graduating with their bachelor’s degrees from the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) at 7 p.m. on May 5 in the Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

As a teen mom at the age of 15, Thomas was pulled out of high school. Her grandmother made sure she earned her GED.

“The guidance counselor told my mom that there was no use in my going to school anymore, and that Burger King was hiring,” Thomas said. “I remember those words as if they were said an hour ago.”

While working 20-hour days between two jobs, college was always at the back of Thomas’ mind. She met a woman, now her wife, who inspired her to enroll part-time at Florida State College in Jacksonville. Prior to earning her associate’s degree, Thomas made an appointment with FYCS adviser Kathryn Ivey to map out her transcript and qualifications to transfer into UF. She told Ivey she would do whatever it took “to get one of those,” as she pointed to Ivey’s own diploma hanging on the wall in her office.

“After hearing Alicia’s story, I am encouraged by her,” Ivey said. “She has been through so much, yet, she always is positive and keeps moving forward, not letting anything stop her. She is a resilient, courageous woman and I am proud to know her.”

The day finally came when Thomas’ UF decision letter appeared. With knees buckled, palms sweating and heart racing, she had her partner open the letter and discovered she had made it. Her acceptance letter remains as the screensaver on her computer.

She still remembers her first day of classes sitting in the J. Wayne Reitz Union parking garage, afraid to move. Imposter syndrome took over, creeping into her thoughts and making her think that maybe she should just go home. Attending huge classrooms where most students were 18 to 22 years old had Thomas second-guessing her college decision.

“Here I am, just a head full of gray hair and wrinkles,” she said, “I was afraid to make eye contact with anybody. Most of my professors were younger than me. I bet they were wondering what I’ve been doing all my life. My life experiences, everything I had been through, I didn’t yet realize their value.”

After experiencing the welcoming attitudes of her classmates and professors, Thomas began to see the importance of her presence in class. Students mentioned how she motivated them. They saw how she showed up for class every day while commuting to UF from Jacksonville – no matter how early or late courses were.

Faculty mention how Thomas has not been afraid to speak up in class and explain to students how the “real world” operates. Many students have shared with Ivey and UF/IFAS senior lecturer Kate Fletcher their appreciation for Thomas’ guidance and words of wisdom.

“Non-traditional students like Alicia bring a sense of wisdom to the classroom,” Ivey said. “Having someone who has been in the workforce or raised a family provides a sense of encouragement to traditional students.”

Classes with Fletcher showed Thomas the value of a career that doesn’t feel like work. Thomas feels her calling in life is to work with homeless populations. Her next step after graduation is to apply for positions with Jacksonville’s Sulzbacher Center, a provider of comprehensive services for homeless individuals, before working toward her aspiration of earning a master’s degree in social work.

Advocating for the homeless has been something Thomas has done for years. She has volunteered at several centers in Jacksonville, including Trinity Rescue Mission, New Life Inn and the soup kitchen at Clara White Mission. Over the years, Thomas has collected purses from family and friends and filled them with toiletries for distribution to the many women and men she sees throughout the day who may need them.

When Thomas walks across the platform at the CALS graduation, her three sons and two grandsons will be there to witness her accomplishment. Thomas encourages others who may be thinking about earning a college degree at an unconventional age to not give up on the dream.

“We may look different and be in different generations, but we are all here together at this place and time, and we are all seeking that one thing: to graduate,” Thomas said. “I’m doing it in the time that God put me here. I have morphed into a mighty Gator!”

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The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) administers the degree programs of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). The mission of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is to deliver unsurpassed educational programs that prepare students to address the world’s critical challenges related to agriculture, food systems, human wellbeing, natural resources and sustainable communities. The college has received more total (national and regional combined) USDA teaching awards than any other institution. Visit the CALS website at cals.ufl.edu, and follow CALS on social media platforms at @ufcals.

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