Graduation makes senior last in her family to finish degree

PLAINVIEW - After Saturday, Tisa Whitfill admits there will be a void in her life.

"Every semester for the past 30 years, I would think to myself, 'Am I going back to school?' or someone else would ask me. But I always had a reason not to."

As part of the graduating class of 2003 at Wayland Baptist University, Whitfill will become the final member of her immediate family to earn a degree from WBU. Add to that the fact that it's been exactly 30 years since she first enrolled at Wayland and the accomplishment is coming none to soon for Whitfill.

A 1973 graduate of Plainview High School, Whitfill came to WBU on a music scholarship after marrying Silverton native Gene Whitfill that same year.

"I had a full scholarship in band and choir, and the extra money even paid our rent," she recalled.

But soon after Gene earned his degree in 1974, the family moved to Silverton to farm. Tisa commuted for a while, but after a semester gave that up, saying, "It was just more than I could do. I was never home."

Despite her desire to eventually finish school, life went on. Babies came, and after third child Patrick was born, Whitfill said the degree moved further on the back burner.

"I never really thought about going back to school. I just wanted to be home with my babies," she said.

After Patrick started kindergarten, the desire welled up again, and she joined three other girls from Silverton who were driving to West Texas A&M in Canyon to take classes.

By 1986, the Whitfills had opted to move their family to Plainview, and Tisa had to take a job and forego her education. Over the years, she'd work in banking, bookkeeping, for a local church and for the school system as a teacher's aide, substitute and office clerk. She never seriously revisited the idea of finishing the degree until 2000, when she lost both of her parents suddenly.

"There was some money available then, and I decided I wanted to come back. Michelle, my oldest, and Jonathan had graduated in 2000, and Patrick had one year left at Wayland," she said. "I think I really surprised them when I decided to actually come back."

Determined to finally finish, Whitfill said she then faced the challenge of choosing a major. Initially, she'd chosen music and later education, but found that neither were appealing now. Her daughter, Michelle, a gifted musician, suggested theatre, telling her mother to "do what you love."

After visiting with theatre director Dr. Marti Runnels, with whom she had worked in the production of Nunsense several years earlier, Whitfill had a firm resolve. She enrolled in 2001 and quickly became an active part of the theatre department. She began to be cast in acting roles and filled other behind-the-scenes roles as well. She later got a job in the theatre office and said she felt right at home.

"I never felt like the other students were resentful or uncomfortable with me," she said. "I felt like I was just part of the group. They welcomed me with open arms. And it's just been delightful. I've enjoyed every day of it."

Whitfill said she'll be glad to finally be free of the nagging regrets about her unfinished business. And her future is full of options, including continuing her education at Texas Tech and pursuing a Master of Fine Arts. She's also pondered starting a theatre school for children and providing summer theatre camps.

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Whitfill will be among 128 students earning degrees at Saturday's commencement ceremony, slated for 2 p.m. in Harral Memorial Auditorium. Students and faculty will complete a traditional processional march around the campus beginning at 1:45 p.m. and ending at the auditorium.

WBU graduate Barbara McAninch will present the main address, with graduating senior Mike Smith of Kingwood giving the student address.