‘I might try for the Master’s’: Defying the odds, 78-year-old inspiration earns degree from Samford

Updated: May. 8, 2021 at 8:20 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Graduating college with a degree is certainly a noteworthy accomplishment in a person’s life and a proud moment for any parent. But when Vivian Cunningham walked the stage at Samford’s Commencement Ceremonies Saturday, it was the kids doing the celebrating.

That’s because getting her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Liberal Studies is somewhat of a lifetime achievement award. And at the age of 78, a fitting way to usher in Mother’s Day weekend.

In the early 1960′s, Vivian Cunningham was a recently divorced, single mother of two when she moved back to Titusville from Atlanta, and started working the night shift as a custodian at Alabama Power.

But deep down, she always knew she wanted more. However, life had dealt her a hand where supporting her son and daughter took priority over her dreams.

“I saw how she struggled. Working at night. Couldn’t find babysitters to keep my sister and myself,” said her son Don Cunningham.

Vivian said, “I worked the night shift for about thirteen years. But then moved up to the day shift.”

It was then she learned about the company’s tuition reimbursement program. Always a good student, she decided to utilize the program to start her journey in pursuing a college degree. But it would be a long journey. With stops at several area colleges and universities where she would earn some credit hours, but again, life’s challenges would cause disruptions.

“It was hard. But she would always find a way to feed us, clothe us and us not knowing how difficult,” Don said.

Vivian would learn to be a seamstress, but also eventually earned an Associates Degree in paralegal studies. She was making ends meet, but it didn’t mean the end of her dream.

“That little voice would say don’t stop. Go back, " Vivian said.

Seeing a brochure about Samford University’s night school program was the motivation she needed. It took several years, including having to finish her last credit hours during a pandemic.

“I had to get my daughter to teach me some of the technical skills, like videos and things like that,” said Vivian.

But after about 15 years of classes, six of them at Samford, Vivian finished. She earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Liberal Studies from Samford University, at the age of 78. To her son, who saw what his mother endure the toughest of times, he’s understandably choked up when reflecting on this accomplishment.

“I get emotional because of what she’s been through. I hope she keeps going. Gets her Masters, Doctorate because she deserves it,” Don said.

As the family celebrates commencement, her son-in-law, retired Army Col. Rob Barnes, a three-time Bronze Star recipient, hopes her story serves as inspiration to others with a dream, that it’s never out of reach, if you have the resolve to keep moving towards it.

“She started from nothing. To me that’s huge. And really a phenomenal lady. It should touch every person to know, they can do it,” Col. Barnes said.

Vivian added, “If you have a goal and a dream, don’t let anyone stop you from that. From pursuing your dream.”

Mike Dubberly asked her, “What do you want to do next?”

Vivian replied, “Well like I said, it might be Chapter two. I might try for the Master’s.”

Vivian credits her family, friends, her faith and advisors at Samford for helping her see this goal to the end. Her son Don, by the way, also now works for Alabama Power. Daughter Tarra has her Master’s degree and is planning to finish her P.H.D.

GREAT UPDATE: To honor her legacy, Samford has established the Vivian Cunningham Leadership Scholarship, which will help other students who exhibit characteristics of leadership, determination and perseverance pursue their dreams of a college education.

Samford will also pay her tuition and fees for her to earn her master’s degree upon acceptance into a program at the university.

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