May 4, 2023 - Education

74-year-old USF grad hopes to pave way for "non-traditional students"

Kathleen in front of a statue of a bull at USF

Kathleen Doermer at USF. Photo: Courtesy of the University of South Florida

Kathleen Doermer put off finishing college for a few years when she got married and had kids. But a few years suddenly turned into more than 50.

What's happening: At 74, Doermer is the oldest student graduating from the University of South Florida this spring β€” one of 7,100 students getting degrees Friday through Sunday.

  • Now that she's finally graduating, Doermer's eyes are open to the value of getting an education and to campus diversity.

Flashback: Only nine students in her St. Petersburg all-girls' high school graduating class went to college in 1966. She was one of them, heading to Florida State, where a trimester cost around $90.

  • She dropped out two years later, got married, raised three daughters and had a successful real estate career. But in 2019, something clicked.
  • "I got hit with this bolt of lightning and thought, 'You could finish now,'" she told Axios.
  • Three and a half years later and $860 per course, Doermer says her bachelor's in social sciences was all worth it.

The big picture: It's been a tumultuous year for higher education in Florida. Doermer's colleagues may be some of the last at USF to study diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and critical race theory.

Catch up fast: Three student protesters and a staff member were arrested in March while trying to meet with USF president Rhea Law to urge her to defy DeSantis' anti-DEI agenda.

  • The arrests sparked more protests and calls for the USF police chief to be fired.
  • The staff member was fired last week and the students face expulsion, per Creative Loafing.

What she's saying: Doermer said being at USF's St. Petersburg campus taught her the value of a diverse environment, and she wants other people in her generation to understand that too.

  • "My peers don't know what they're talking about, and so they judge," she said. "I've been on campus with these kids. I see how sad they are. …. The lives they live are extremely difficult."

What's ahead: Doermer said she wants to eventually testify in court on behalf of diversity in higher education. And she wants to help other students like her get their degrees.

  • She hopes to create a position at USF to be a liaison for what she calls "non-traditional students," those who want their degrees but might be too intimidated to go back to school
  • "I can show you because I had to go through it," she said. "The only question is, 'How hard do you want to work?'"

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Tampa Bay.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Tampa Bay stories

No stories could be found

Tampa Baypostcard

Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Tampa Bay.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more