Each year, hundreds of people graduate from the University of the District of Columbia and go out to make a mark in the world. Many UDC graduates are under 25 years old and haven’t yet hit the workforce.
And then there are graduates like Catherine Fitch, who received her bachelor’s degree in social work on May 11 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest at the age of 58. Fitch started working on her degree eight years ago and wouldn’t let anything get in her way.
“This is something that I really wanted to do,” Fitch said. “It wasn’t easy because I had to balance school, work and family obligations but I did. If I did it, other people can do it, too.”
The UDC serves as the only public higher education institution in the District and has historically been a commuter school primarily, with students taking classes while working and living off-campus. It has long had the tradition of educating students past the age of 25.
Despite her age, higher education trends on the national level seem to favor Fitch. The traditional higher education student who attends college or university straight after high school has almost become a thing of the past. RTI International, a North Carolina think tank, completed a study in 2018 in which it said 74 percent of American undergraduates are over the age of 25 or have children.
Fitch has worked at Joseph’s House, a nonprofit that works with homeless people who are in the advanced stages of HIV and terminal cancer for many years. She works as a certified nursing assistant and has received high marks from her superiors for her work ethic and tenacity.
“She is tough as nails, funnier than hell and a joy to be around,” said Bob Rogan, a member of Joseph’s House board of directors. “She is a kind and compassionate person who wants nothing more than to serve those in our community less fortunate than her. She is universally liked and respected.”
While getting a bachelor’s degree for anyone takes persistence, patience and intellect, Fitch dealt with family obligations, economic stress and a fire at her residence, obstacles that would permanently end many students pursuit of higher education.
Fitch, who was backed by her husband Joseph, her three children and eight grandchildren in the pursuit of her degree, credits her family’s and employer’s support for her success.
“Joseph’s House fully supported her getting a degree at UDC and worked flexibly with her schedule,” said Rogan, who works as the chief of staff for Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). “We wanted to make sure that she met her goals.”
Throughout the eight years at UDC, Fitch would sometimes take as little as a single course a semester and spent many nights receiving instruction and also weekends doing classwork and homework. Fitch said she got along well with her fellow students — “they helped me when I needed help” — and faculty members “who made time for me.”
Fitch said she wanted to study social work because of the experiences she had at Joseph’s House.
“I am already in the field, working with the homeless,” she said. “I want to help the homeless and I determined that getting a social work degree was the best way for me to do that.”
Fitch said her persistence has served as an example for her family and friends.
“I tell people to always follow your dreams and never give up,” she said. “And always put God first. It doesn’t matter what age you are, you can do it.”
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who has emerged as a chief critic of President Trump, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. received honorary degrees from the university. Waters delivered the commencement address in which she blasted the corruption of the Trump administration and the encouraged the graduates to “go out and change the world.”