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(Credit: Jennifer Gustavson photos)

The first day of the winter semester at Stony Brook University was bittersweet for Cutchogue mother Desiree Reese.

Nearly late for her 1 p.m. class on the third floor of Frey Hall, the newest building on campus, Ms. Reese found a seat toward the front of the room and took out a reusable bottle filled with water. 

Although it was only the first day of class, Ms. Reese came prepared and placed textbooks, a folder and a notebook on her desk.

After settling in, Ms. Reese exhaled and smiled at her professor, Jennifer Carter. The philosophy and environment class then got underway.

At graduation this spring, Ms. Reese, 51, will be the oldest person in her class to earn a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.

Being the oldest doesn’t bother her; she even considers it an “honor.”

“I’m very proud of that and not embarrassed about it at all,” she said. “If I inspire one middle-aged person to go back to school, I would be thrilled.”

After raising a family while working a variety of retail and clerical jobs — most of which didn’t require a college education — Ms. Reese decided to reinvent herself by attending college later in life.

The process was intimidating at first, she recalled in a recent interview, but she soon found her age working toward her advantage. Typing and using a computer was burdensome in the beginning, but she said she was able to connect more easily with her teachers because most of them were about her age. Her former teachers have said they found students gravitating toward Ms. Reese during class projects because she exudes strong leadership and organizational skills.

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Ed Casey, distinguished professor of philosophy at Stony Brook, was Ms. Reese’s teacher last fall and said her comments and questions during class were inspiring to other students.

“She gave an outstanding report on her thoughts concerning women and nature and I noticed that all the students listened attentively and with respect,” he said. “Also, her poise and her life experience were valued assets to members of the class, including myself as teacher.”

Ms. Reese’s current journey began about four years ago, after she realized that she would become an empty nester when her youngest child, Tristan, now 17, graduated from Mattituck High School in 2014. Having been a mother for more than half of her adult life, she decided it was time to figure out her future.

She decided to return to school in 2010, while working part-time, and enrolled at Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead. A week before her finals, however, Ms. Reese said her employer told her it wanted to fill her position full-time.

“They basically gave me an ultimatum to choose between my job to nowhere or an education with endless possibilities,” she said. “I chose school and have not looked back.”

She graduated two years later with high honors and several awards, scholarships and honor society memberships.

Ms. Reese attributes a lot of her college success to Peconic Landing, the Greenport life-care community, which awarded her $2,000 in Lifetime Learning scholarships, which she said covered almost half of her tuition at SCCC. The program is offered to non-traditional students or adult learners from the North Fork, she said.

“Besides the financial assistance, the award itself motivated me to continue my studies,” Ms. Reese said.

She hopes to attend Stony Brook’s School of Social Welfare graduate program to study gerontology and palliative care and become a licensed clinical social worker, a career path she also attributes to Peconic Landing.

“I did work there for a short time in food service and I met so many interesting people,” she said. “I loved talking to them and asking them about their history.”

Her positive experience at Stony Brook has not only inspired her to pursue a career but also prompted Tristan to pick it as his first-choice college.

Tristan, who learned earlier this month that he has been accepted to Stony Brook, said he’s proud of his mom for going back to school.

“I’m glad she made the choice to do so,” he said. “It will be well worth it in the long run.”

Typing papers was one challenge for Ms. Reese when she returned to school. The other was getting over feeling intimidated because of her age. She soon adjusted to college life and met other professional women who also went back to school after their children got older.

Ms. Reese said her advice to others on the fence about going back to school later in life is to believe in themselves.

“This is why, at the age of 51, I feel that in many ways my life has only just begun,” she said. “I could not have made it this far without the love and support of my friends and family. I am not alone in thinking that it is never too late to follow your dream and that you are never too old to learn something new or reinvent yourself.”

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