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For older Americans who went back to college, the pandemic has destroyed decades-long graduation dreams

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JULY 14: Students throw their mortarboards in the air during their graduation photograph at the University of Birmingham degree congregations on July 14, 2009 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Whether they flunked out “spectacularly,” just missed graduation or never went to college fresh out of high school, adult students say they’re feeling the hit from coronavirus canceling college as much as the 20-somethings.

For some, the dream of graduating with a degree has been decades in the making. CNN spoke to three students who won’t be able to walk the stage.

Adult learners, classified as college students aged 25 and older, made up 7.4 million of the 19.9 million students who were enrolled in colleges and universities in fall 2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Academic probation for 33 years

Siobhan Smith, 56, told CNN she was supposed to graduate in May and even though she won’t have a traditional ceremony in front of a large crowd, she’s still going to celebrate even if that means organizing a virtual commencement celebration for herself.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what kids were going through missing all these milestones and feeling some of that myself just as a senior citizen,” she said.

Smith is enrolled in a program for adults reentering education at a community college in Redwood, California. Smith said she spent a brief semester in college after she graduated high school but “spectacularly flunked out.” After marriage she had kids and worked 20 years in local government, she didn’t have a chance to go back to school. That was one of her biggest regrets, she said.

Once she retired four years ago from her city clerk job, she thought it was the right time to jump back in.

When Smith went back to enroll in college, she discovered she has been on academic probation for 33 years with grades from 1983 still on file.

The experience of going back to school was a chance for her to prove to herself that she could do it and diminish the shame she felt about not going to college and not doing well.

“I just wanted that experience of doing the walk,” she said. “I wanted to throw my cap in the air, I wanted my kids to be there and to be proud of me. It’s not the most important part of achieving my goal but those ceremonial things are really important.”

Smith said her end goal is to get a masters degree in library science and fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a librarian.

A different type of energy

Scott Pierce, 48, is a senior at Birmingham-Southern College, a liberal arts college in Alabama and was set to graduate in May upon the completion of his senior project.

Pierce told CNN he attended the same school for four years but left in 1994 when he ran out of the money and motivation to fulfill his degree requirements.

After building a 25-year career in IT, Pierce decided a few years ago that it was time to return and finish what he started. With six classes for completion of his degree, he picked up where he left off.

“I was definitely the odd person out in the classroom,” he said. “In a couple of cases, I was older than the professor. So it was a little different for me, I was anxious about going back and being this outlier.”

Once he got in the swing of things, Pierce said he grew to love going into a classroom again.

Pierce’s mother, a legacy from Birmingham Southern was excited to see him graduate, he said.

“I’ve never been real big on ceremonies,” he said. “But there’s something special about it, that ritual of it that makes it more real and especially in a group.”

But for Pierce, he said he isn’t finishing his degree so he can move on or up professionally.

“It’s like, going to a concert, a live show is different than watching a show on a video stream,” he said. “There’s a different energy. So having a physical ceremony, I’m missing it now more than I was looking forward to it before.”

Securing a future, for the future

Laurel Tabaka, 39, a stay-at-home mom and military spouse is getting a graduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

She told CNN she didn’t attend her graduation when she finished her bachelor’s degree, a decision she regrets, so now, more than ever, she was looking forward to marking the culmination of her education with her Master of Public Administration degree.

“I was hoping to have my kids there and just be able to celebrate this achievement,” Tabaka said.

For Tabaka, going back for her master’s degree was twofold. The workforce in her town is highly competitive and she wanted to be able to land a job that would put her in a position to save money for the college funds of her two children.

“The actual fantasy of walking across the stage and having my husband and my children there to celebrate, that is what got me through graduate school,” she said. “Any time I was struggling with the ridiculous workload I just thought about getting to have that ceremony.”

This story has been updated to correct the year Scott Pierce left school. It was 1994.