Essex, MO woman graduates Southeast after 36 years - KFVS12 News & Weather Cape Girardeau, Carbondale, Poplar Bluff

Essex, MO woman graduates Southeast after 36 years

CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO (KFVS) -

More than 1,300 students will graduate from Southeast Missouri State University on Saturday, and for one Stoddard County woman, the achievement is decades in the making. 

It's been 36 years in the making to be exact and Zenita Smith said this moment wouldn't have happened without the love of God and the patience of her family.

"It felt really good," Smith said. "Going in to get that cap and gown and putting it on!"    

Smith said this graduating moment is a long time coming after starting her college career in 1981.

"It was the first time I had been away from home so I was really scared," said Smith.

So scared, Smith said, she eventually called it quits.

"I just walked out and said 'I'm done'," she said. "I was getting married in a month and half and I said I'm done."

Over the next two decades, Smith started a family, being a foster parent to dozens of other kids - later adopting two.

During that time, Smith started working as a substitute art teacher at Richland High School. 

Then two years ago, she was approached to become a full-time art teacher - but knew she had unfinished business.

"I felt if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it right, so I went back to school," she said.

Smith started taking online classes at Southeast - and after 36 years of waiting, she's finally getting the degree she always wanted.

"I pressed that submit button and one hundred pounds rolled off my shoulders." Smith said. "I knew I would be relieved, but I didn't know how relieved."

Smith said the feeling is overwhelming, but there's one thing that is missing - her mom.

"My mother died a year ago and the one thing she wanted to do is see me graduate and she didn't," she said while wiping away tears. "And that's probably been the hardest, but I feel like she's seeing me. If you got a dream, you got to keep going… and that's what I did."

Smith said she hopes this inspires her students and with an unfinished goal.

"Even if they don't succeed this next year or so, just keep going!," Smith said. "When you're 54, you might get your diploma."

Smith will get her chance to walk the stage on Saturday, May 13.

But on May 12, she gave away two scholarships in her mother's name at Richland high school graduation.

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