Patricia Jones has a keen eye for uncovering the truth.
One day, a woman carrying a particularly suspicious tray of cookies passed her near the main entrance at Bolingbrook High School. After a bit of interrogation (and a few cookies, of course), Jones was on her way to earning her first college degree at age 51. She'll join her two sisters Sunday, May 13, as first-generation college graduates.
The cookie carrier, a Benedictine University academic adviser, told the Romeoville woman about a program that would allow her to go back to school while saving as much as 25 percent on tuition.
Jones was intrigued and wanted to verify the cookie lady's claims. She attended a Benedictine information session with her sister, Prescillia Spencer.
Two years later, Jones, a paraprofessional at Bolingbrook High School, is graduating from Benedictine University with an associate of arts degree in business administration. Her sisters, Spencer and Pamela Kuykendall, both of Naperville, will graduate with her.
Kuykendall spearheaded the sisters' educational pursuits, earning an associate of arts in business administration from Benedictine in 2010. She'll graduate today with a bachelor of arts in management. Spencer, like Jones, will graduate with an associate of arts in business administration.
The sisters always have believed in hard work and education, but did not have the opportunity to earn degrees earlier in life. The grandmothers -- who collectively have 21 grandchildren -- never imagined all three of them would earn degrees simultaneously.
"I think it's a once in a lifetime experience that I will cherish forever," said Kuykendall, 46, a state of Illinois rehabilitation case coordinator who will graduate with honors. "Who would have ever thought that my sisters and I would be graduating together?"
The sisters grew up with three other siblings on Chicago's West Side. They learned at an early age what it took to provide for a family and the value of perseverance. They were raised mostly by their mother, who worked factory jobs to provide for the six children.
"Our mom was from Mississippi and did not get a chance to get a higher education," said Spencer, a mother of four and grandmother of 10. "But she taught us about good work ethics and values."
Benedictine's Moser College of Adult and Professional Studies provides flexible programs for nontraditional students, and the university's values-based curriculum fit well with the sisters' own family values.
Pursuing degrees was challenging for the sisters, all of whom were working, raising children and grandchildren, and involved in community service. But they encouraged each other to stay the course, remembering the values their mother taught them.
"We were taught one thing, and that is to help each other," Jones said. "When our mother became sick, all of my brothers and sisters got on the phone together and said, 'We need to make a decision and take care of our mom.'"
"When we were little, my mom was a single parent and she would pray all the time; sometimes she would make us all sit with her and pray," Jones added. "She would also make us say 'I love you' to each other and said that all we have is each other."
Along with praying together, the sisters also learned to study together; Spencer and Jones even joined the same study group. The prayers and study groups were needed whenever doubt entered anyone's mind about being able to successfully complete a degree program while facing life's normal challenges.
"When I was taking my second class, I thought, 'I can't do this,'" said Jones, also a grandmother of 10. "Then I would focus on the reason why I am here: to help my students at Bolingbrook High School be confident that they can do it."
The sisters' children, some of whom have graduated or will be graduating college, are very excited and proud to see their mothers and aunts achieve at the university level.
Each sister is just as proud of each other as they are of themselves, and they all believe the college degrees will enhance their career opportunities. In fact, Jones already has received a promotion.
Until she was spurred on by an increasingly competitive workplace that limits advancement without postsecondary education, Spencer, 55, a supervisor at Maryville Academy in Bartlett, never imagined she would be earning a college degree at this stage in her life. Now she can't imagine stopping at an associate degree.
"I did not think I would make it going back to school at my age," Spencer said. "I have had some fantastic teachers. I do not plan to stop. I plan to go through the bachelor's program. It hasn't been easy, but it has been a wonderful journey."