It was a long road, but 24 years after first enrolling as a freshman, Beth Cunningham is now an alumna of the University of South Carolina. She graduated with honors in December 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management.
Cunningham first enrolled at USC in 1992, but dropped out after a semester. She went on to earn degrees in marketing and business management from Midlands Tech, become a mother of two daughters, and begin a career at BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. Still, the dream of a USC diploma never died.
"I was brought up with the expectation that I would go to a four-year school, Carolina particularly," she said. In 2011, BlueCross hosted an education fair, and Cunningham met Harriet Hurt, then USC’s director of adult student services. Hurt began her own college education at USC when she was 47, and with encouragement from her and from her own family, Cunningham decided the time had come.
"There really wasn't another school that I was even interested in going to. I've always been a Gamecock fan."
She began taking classes at night, working around her job and family duties. "A couple of semesters I took two [classes] and that was kind of a lot," she said. Most semesters she limited to one class, and she excelled.
"I've always liked going to school and I've always pushed myself to make good grades," she said. "I think as an adult student you appreciate it more." The process took more than five years, but this December she finished, with honors. While thrilled by the accomplishment, she said she recommends doing college the more traditional way.
"[My daughter] would always say 'I don't want you to go to class tonight,' and I'd say 'Well, what does that tell you? Do it right after high school. Don't do it when you're an adult and have a full time job and children," Cunningham said.
Cunningham said she had strong and crucial support from her family, her employer, and the USC faculty and staff. BlueCross reimbursed her for 75 percent of tuition. "I couldn't have done this without them,” she said.
She also credited her advisors in particular: Harriet Hurt, Glenna Gillentine, and BJ Beckham. "They really helped keep me on the right path and keep me motivated,” she said. "They went out of their way to help me find classes to fit my schedule."
With diploma in hand, Cunningham is taking some time off over the holidays, but then going back to work as a business systems analyst at BlueCross, the company which has employed her for more than 20 years.
"I'm glad I'm done. The degree is nice. The ring was I think a bigger deal to me,” she said. "There really wasn't another school that I was even interested in going to. I've always been a Gamecock fan."
She added that when her youngest daughter goes to college, she might consider going back for another degree too. If she does, there will be only one school for her. She is officially a Gamecock, as she put it, “Forever.”