'Was there a place for me in college?'

July 5, 2021

Dearborn Wolverine Helen Morrison, ‘78 B.A., shares lessons she learned through earning her degree during a time of social change, persevering after personal tragedy and witnessing how advocacy can change hearts and minds.

 Illustration highlighting Alumna Helen Morrison
Illustration highlighting Alumna Helen Morrison

In the 1970s, the women’s liberation movement made headlines around the country. Social norms began to shift as more females entered the workforce and the college classroom. And Helen Morrison, a 45-year-old homemaker who had the dream of a college degree, became a local representation of this cultural change.

On a national and regional level, Morrison was highlighted in Michigan Media’s 10-part PBS series Worlds of Women (it can be found in the Bentley Historical Library’s collections), which explored this changing role. Closer to home, people at Morrison’s church and in her friend group questioned why she was putting in the effort for an education.

“I was a woman with a dream — a dream I had since I graduated high school in June 1945. I wasn’t looking for attention when I started at UM-Dearborn in 1973. The timing seemed right with my youngest finishing high school,” says Morrison, now 93. “I hope seeing a middle-aged lady in the classroom inspired others to be up for challenges they faced. I wanted my story to be helpful somehow to someone along the way.”

Decades after graduation, Morrison — who studied sociology and education and started Career Life Planners counseling following her 1978 graduation — continues to help others through giving advice, annually offering financial support toward educational goals at UM-Dearborn, and sharing stories of perseverance.

The Dearborn Wolverine recently wrote down her experiences in a memoir and shared some of the lessons she learned through earning her degree during a time of social change, persevering after personal tragedy and witnessing how advocacy can change hearts and minds.

Change makes some people uncomfortable. Keep refining yourself anyway.

“I enjoyed being a homemaker and raising my kids. Homemaking is a high-value vocation and many of the skills are transferable to a career (scheduling, mediating, organizing, service). But I wanted something more after my children were grown. I see life like a fine piece of art or sculpture — you keep perfecting it.

Going to college changed how people viewed me at the time. I was seen as a liberated woman. It made some people uncomfortable. At my church, the men (clergy) would make statements like, ‘So you don’t like the kitchen?’ They sounded very insecure...I just smiled. I had friends who questioned me on why I took the extra effort when I could have had the so-called easy life. My answers didn’t seem to stop the questions, so I let my actions speak for themselves.

I resurrected the Student Psychology Association and served as president, got an internship I wanted at the UM-Dearborn Counseling Center, graduated and started my Career Life Planners business that I ran for 40 years. Some people may have still been uncomfortable, but they knew I wasn’t going to pay their negativity any mind. And my friends’ confusion over my extra effort turned into awe. Your journey might not be for everyone and that’s ok. Don’t let them stand in your way. Maybe they will come around, maybe they won’t. What matters is that you keep learning and growing.”

Don’t let preconceived notions discourage you.

“Unfortunately, we are socially programmed to think things like 50 or 60 is too old to fulfill a dream. At 93, I know this is untrue. But at 45, I did wonder if I was too old to go back to school. Was there a place for me in college? My doubts disappeared as I kept reading about the women who were 75 and 80 and getting degrees. I thought, ‘They can do it. Why can't I?’

I graduated at age 50. I’m now 93. That’s 40-plus years with a college degree. If I would have viewed 45 as too old for college, I would have missed out on so much. 

Your dream might be different from mine. Whatever it is, don’t let age or anything else hold you back. Find people who walked the path before you: how did they do it? Let them guide and inspire. If you can’t find anyone, you may be the one who inspires others. Take one step — something you know you can accomplish. For example, fill out an application or talk to someone who can help. One step taken is one step closer to your goal.”

Keep advocating for the change you want to see. 

“In May 1978, the month after I graduated from UM-Dearborn, I was one of the 10 elected commissioners from the Presbytery of Detroit to the General Assembly, which is the annual conference of the Presbyterian Church. One of the issues at that time was the ordination of homosexuals. Unbeknownst to us, there were demonstrations outside of the conference center that were making national news when we were  going to vote on this. While I didn’t agree with the vote that took place on that day in 1978 (it was denied), I was determined to keep looking at the big picture. When I got home, I stayed active in my church, told others what happened at the General Assembly meeting, and did my share of talks.

It took 36 more years...but at the 2014 General Assembly the commissioners voted to approve same-sex marriage and for clergy members to perform same-sex marriages. At the same assembly, I was named as a Women of Faith and the theme was ‘Prophetic Women.’ That was among the greatest honors I’ve received in my lifetime. Please keep speaking up — it may take longer than you want, but change will come.”

Surround yourself with people who lift you up.

“When things are good, it is easy to keep going. When I was approaching my UM-Dearborn graduation everything my husband Don and I worked for seemed to be falling into place. Our youngest was getting ready to graduate college, Don was going to take an early retirement, and we were planning to open a career-life mentoring business together. I always enjoyed helping people and I knew it would be a fulfilling path for me. Don was going to handle the finance and administrative side.

But our lives changed in the blink of an eye. Don’s lower back pain that we attributed to pulling old grapevines out of our backyard was cancer — it had spread and was terminal. We learned that two months before I graduated. I was dazed. But my husband did everything for us to live as normally as possible. Whether or not he’d be there to see it, Don wanted me to keep working toward my dream of having a college degree and a business. As a graduation gift, he registered our business idea and put it in my name. That was a traumatizing time and I could have put everything on hold or stopped. But I had someone who believed in my vision and supported me until the end. Surround yourself with motivators and believers. They will help you make it through the most difficult times.”

You can always make a difference.

“After we found out my husband had metastatic prostate cancer, what was ahead of us was pretty scary and final in so many ways. He was given three months to three years to live. I cannot imagine what was going through his mind. But Don kept looking at ways to better the world we live in. He was pleased he could contribute to experimental drug research with the time he had left. I’m so grateful for Don and people like him because two of our three sons have since benefited from prostate cancer research. People today are benefiting from what Don did 40 years ago.

If you are experiencing something difficult, please know what you are doing matters. You might not see the impact you have, but your actions can make a world of difference for someone. Struggles can turn into stories of inspiration. Failures can become valuable lessons. Moments that seem so final can have an everlasting impact. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that it’s never too late to make a difference.”

Interview by Sarah Tuxbury. Helen Morrison’s unpublished memoir is called “Yearn, Learn, Earn.”