Never too late: Buckingham achieves long-held dream of finishing college

Never too late: Buckingham achieves long-held dream of finishing college

May 2, 2019

Paula Buckingham is accustomed to wearing many different hats. She’s a military wife, mother of two sons (now 24 and 16), a grandmother, and a caregiver to her aging parents, but on May 4, Buckingham will put on the hat signifying the accomplishment of a long-held dream – that of a Maryville College graduate.

Buckingham, a nontraditional student, is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in sociology.

“I’ve always loved psychology,” she said. “I’m one of these people who, when you go somewhere, people come up and talk to you, and you instantly want to help them. I’ve always had that interest because people would talk to me, and I enjoy listening. I think that’s important in life, because people want to talk, but they don’t want to listen.” 

‘Do this for you’

Buckingham’s circuitous path to Maryville College took almost three decades to traverse.

Buckingham met her husband, Neal, to whom she’s been married 25 years, when she was employed as a dispatcher with the 911 Center in Blount County.

“I was building on a career when I met Neal at Rural/Metro,” she said. He was in the military, so when they married and started a family, Buckingham took on the responsibilities of a military wife. “I put everything else aside. I stayed home, raised the kids, took care of the house, everything,” she said. “He’s [Neal] missed a lot of things, so I had to be the mom and the dad.”

Although Buckingham attended the University of Tennessee just after high school graduation, she did not complete her degree. This left her at a disadvantage in the workforce.

“I had worked at the preschool with my son for 10 years, and I had basically gone as far as I could without finishing my degree,” she said. “One day, my husband and I were talking, and he said, ‘You know, you should go back to school.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea,’ and kept on going. I had too many things going on. Then I got a call from Maryville College, and they said, ‘You’ve been accepted to Maryville College.’ He had already filled out the application, did all the paperwork – and all I had to do was just go.”

Her husband would accept no excuses for turning down the opportunity. “He wanted me to come in on his GI Bill so I couldn’t use ‘We can’t afford it,’ for an excuse,” Buckingham said. “My kids were older, so I couldn’t use that for an excuse. He said, ‘You need to go. You need to do this for you,’ so I said, ‘OK. I will.’ I started in the fall of 2016, and he’s been my biggest supporter.”

When she first started classes, she was apprehensive and afraid she’d be at a disadvantage with students coming in straight out of high school. “I didn’t know if I could do it,” she said – but she did. “I took my first major exam coming back to school at the age of 50 and made a B on it. I was ecstatic! I made the Dean’s List the first semester I was there.” 

A heart for veterans

Buckingham’s heart for veterans began before her marriage to an Army man.

“I’ve been around the military my whole life,” Buckingham said. Her grandfather was in the Army and a Purple Heart recipient. Her father was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War era; her uncles also served in that era. Now, her 24-year-old son is a Marine. “His wife was a Marine, and my stepson was a Marine,” Buckingham said.

She was introduced to the Student Veterans Association (SVA) on the Maryville College campus and immediately felt at home.

“I was around other military people that understood military life, and there were also a lot of nontraditional students,” said Buckingham, now president of the SVA. “I was a nontraditional student and didn’t really fit in with the younger kids – I’m old enough to be their mother or grandmother!”

MC Registrar Kathi Wilson said her office has worked closely with Buckingham for registration and advising. “I also certify the veteran benefits, so I have an association with her in that capacity, as well,” Wilson said. “I have a VA work study position in my office, and I’ve typically tried to give that to the president of the SVA. They can work in my office, and I can help them brainstorm and plan for SVA events, and then get them some time working in the Military Student Center as part of their work study job. So I’ve worked with her for the past year.”

Wilson described Buckingham as “a tornado.”

“She is just a stellar student, conscientious and a hard worker,” Wilson said. “She is so dedicated to the veterans. She’s invested in anything supportive of veterans, both on campus and in her personal life. She’s an excellent leader in SVA. I can’t say enough good things about her. She’s a wonderful person.”

Off campus, Buckingham is involved with the Family Readiness Group with her husband’s unit. “They are a young unit, and a lot of them have never been deployed before,” she said. “I felt like I should share some of my wisdom with both of those groups, since I’d been through it so many times. I needed to do it, because I’ve been blessed with the wisdom and the knowledge of how it should be done and what needed to be done. It was my duty as an Army wife to do my part. He goes over and serves, and it’s my duty to stay here and serve.”

Neal, on active duty with the U.S. Army National Guard, has been deployed since last July. He is unable to attend Buckingham’s graduation. 

Never too late

Buckingham credits the Maryville College faculty and staff with making her experience at the College a success. “They went out of their way to make sure I was successful,” she said. “So many professors and staff members checked in on me to make sure everything was OK, or just listened when I needed to vent or tell what’s going on in my life. They were understanding about me, as a nontraditional student, trying to juggle everything and helped me stay on course. The other students have helped me tremendously, too.”

Dr. Lori Schmied, MC professor of psychology, has been Buckingham’s academic advisor and Senior Study advisor. She said, “Paula has been a wonderful student, a great addition to our program and a very good role model for other students. She juggles a lot of responsibilities with a teenage son, a husband deployed overseas and parents to help. She’s one of those students who does it all.”

Schmied recalled when Buckingham first started at MC.

“I had her in class her first semester, and she was so uncertain about her ability to succeed,” Schmied said. “I think things were overwhelming, so to get to this point is such a proud moment for her – it’s a proud moment for all our students, of course. But to come back to school takes a certain courage. Our nontraditional students are often the best because they know why they’re here. They’re ready to get it done.”

Buckingham has some words of encouragement for others who are considering a return to the classroom.

“Don’t think that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, because you can,” Buckingham said. “It’s still there – you might have to jumpstart it, but it’s there! Just because you’re older doesn’t mean you can’t do it. I was amazed at how much I could read and write and actually retain. It’s never too late to go back to school. It’s never too late.”

Story written by Linda Braden Albert for Maryville College


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2019 semester is 1,148.