Lubbock graduate finishes degree in secret after decades on family farm

Release Date: January 18, 2008

PATRICIA – Val Stephens put thoughts of finishing his college degree far away after spending years on the family farm. But seeing his son and daughter earn their degrees over the past few years sparked a desire to see if he could complete that early goal.

              It was a ‘better late than never’ experience for Stephens, 55, who graduated with around 80 classmates from Wayland Baptist University’s Lubbock Campus on Saturday, Jan. 12, at First Baptist Church in Lubbock.

              Though he admits the new diploma will likely hang on the wall and not be his ticket to a new job or career path, Stephens still said he felt the degree was worth pursuing, even if it took him many years and miles to finally see it through.

              Stephens first attended Texas Tech University as a traditional student, choosing a major in business administration. He lacked one economics class to graduate, and after trying for three semesters only to encounter scheduling or staffing conflicts keeping him from completing the class, his father called him back home to the family farm in Patricia, located outside Lamesa, in 1976.

              “I’ve always enjoyed farming, and I felt like he needed me there, so I went back home,” said Stephens. “I’m still farming here after all these years.”

              Life went on as usual for Stephens and his wife, Patricia, for the following years. They had a son, Jess, in 1979, a daughter, Bree, in 1981 and another son, Matt, in 1982, born with severe health issues. Once Patricia returned to teaching school, Val served double duty as a farmer and as caregiver for Matt, often driving him to Midland several days each week for rehabilitation.

              Though he valued education, the responsibilities of husband, father and farmer were first priority. But his unfinished business stayed in the back of his mind.

              “In the mid ‘80s, I went back to Tech to ask about taking that one course I needed, but the degree plan had changed and I was going to have to take several more classes to finish,” he recalled. He left thinking he’d pursue the options later, and it was not until 1989 when his father passed away that he revisited the idea, only to find even more changes and required courses.

              Stephens abandoned the idea for a decade, finally enrolling in some online classes in 2001 at Tech, taking one each semester for four terms. By then, though, the degree plans were so different that Stephens was 49 hours from a diploma. It seemed like time to give up, but his adviser gently suggested he look into other options in the Lubbock area.

              “My daughter’s best friend, Rachel Ainsworth, had gone to Wayland and worked in the registrar’s office, and she offered to check into my transcripts,” he recalled. “Within a week or so, I was accepted to Wayland and only needed 31 hours to graduate.”

              Feeling encouraged, Stephens enrolled in a computer course in the fall of 2003 at the Lubbock campus and found a supportive family and rewarding class work. He took one course every term, driving 75 miles one way for class in Lubbock, but he enjoyed the experience immensely.

              “Every person involved in Wayland was so supportive to me and to everyone, from the front desk person to all the professors,” he said.

              Ironically, Stephens, who calls himself a “talker,” chose to keep the lid on his college plans, with only his wife and children aware he was finishing the degree. Eventually, though, a few people had to know when curiosity caused concern.

              “There were a few people who were worried about why I was going to Lubbock every week all night long and finally we had to tell some people,” Stephens laughed. “Some people were surprised that I could keep a secret that long.”

              His own mother found out about the scheme in an unusual way.

              “She was in the heart hospital two summers ago and was in very critical condition,” he said. “One day while I was sitting with her, not even knowing if she was conscious, I told her, ‘Mom, you have to pull through so you can come to my graduation.’ A few weeks later after we got her home, she said she remembered hearing something about graduation, so I told her what was going on.”

              She did pull through, something for which Stephens jokingly takes credit, and she was present at Saturday’s graduation ceremony, along with his family members, all of whom have supported Val through the years.

              “They haven’t said, really, but I think they’re proud of me,” he laughs. “I just wanted to do it so I could say I’d done it.”