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Never too old, never too late: First-gen graduate earns degree 30 years later


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April 22, 2024

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

When Adrienne Keller began her freshman year of college in 1994, she couldn’t have anticipated graduating 30 years later. 

“I got married, then divorced, and never finished my degree,” she said.

Adrienne Keller takes a selfie outside with green trees and a white marble staircase behind her​
Adrienne Keller rediscovered her love of art history during cycling journeys across Europe, inspiring her to return to college after decades away.

This spring, Keller, a first-generation student, is accomplishing one of her biggest dreams and graduating summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in art history.

After her divorce in her 30s, Keller believed she was too old to study her true passion and follow a degree path that would include graduate studies in art history. Instead, she became an orthopedic surgical veterinary technician. 

But the lure of fine art persisted. 

“I abandoned everything in my 40s and traveled inexpensively long-term,” she said, “riding a bike across France and Germany twice and walking across Romania through the Carpathian Mountains.”

Keller’s international adventures rejuvenated her love for art, such that when the pandemic hit and she was forced to cut her travels short, she took the plunge and enrolled in the art history program through ASU Online.

Doubling up her course load and embracing the opportunity to learn at her own pace online helped Keller graduate ahead of schedule. 

She also received help from the Starbucks College Achievement Plan (SCAP), a first-of-its-kind partnership between Arizona State University and Starbucks, which offers eligible U.S. partners (employees) 100% upfront tuition coverage. 

“The Starbucks partnership was invaluable for me to finish school,” Keller said. “Without it, I would not have been able to move forward with my plans for graduate school in the fall because I wouldn't have been able to earn my BA from ASU.”

In addition to continuing her education, she also returned to Europe over the past summer, exploring art museums in Germany as she rode her bike from Berlin to Austria. 

“I discovered particular lesser-discussed artists hidden behind the Berlin Wall during the era of the German Democratic Republic,” Keller said. “The realization that an entire art movement occurred and has not been fully added to the history of art has inspired me to research further as I move forward in my graduate studies.”

We spoke with the new graduate about her experiences abroad and her journey with ASU Online.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: My interest in art has been lifelong, but my passion escalated during those journeys cycling across France and Germany, intimately experiencing the cityscapes and landscapes captured by my favorite artists on canvas. I spent a large portion of the pandemic reading scholarly essays and learning more about these artists, searching for more information as I discovered more artists and art movements. Like the roots of a vine quickly growing and taking hold in a garden, I knew I had to forgo qualms about being "too old" and commit to following my passion.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU Online — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: Initially, I was concerned about my writing abilities since I last wrote a paper decades ago. However, I did surprisingly well on my early assignments, continually applying feedback from my ASU professors. I now love research and writing, and for my master's applications, I voluntarily conducted my own research for the qualifying paper, becoming accepted at each university to which I applied. When I was in college for the first time in the '90s, effective writing was challenging for me, so I never would have imagined that I was capable of this level of writing or that I would enjoy it so much.

Q: Why did you choose ASU Online?

A: Since the pandemic was an issue at the time of my application, compounded by anxiety about being a mature student, attending college online seemed ideal, and ASU has a reputation as a leading school online and on campus. The art history program was comparable to other on-campus schools, but I could have the flexibility and security of tackling this new chapter at my own pace. I honestly do not think I could be this successful if it weren't for ASU Online. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Education is a powerful tool that can be built lifelong. Embrace today's passions, but don't hesitate to welcome new passions later in life. 

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: I have only had one study spot, right here at my desk since day one!

Q: What are your plans after graduation? 

A: My immediate plans are to obtain a summer internship in a museum's curation department and begin an amazing art history graduate program in the fall at City University of New York’s Hunter College to earn my MA. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I do not have the answer to the problem, but I do know that water pollution impacts the quality of drinking water worldwide. Water is a basic need, yet clean drinking water is limited, so I would invest in solutions to the effects of water pollution.

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