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News: Roane State graduate overcame challenges to finish degree at age 51

News: Roane State graduate overcame challenges to finish degree at age 51

Thomas Chartrand, 51, returned to college late in life and obtained his associate's degree from Roane State Community College in May.

July 3, 2017

By Bob Fowler
Roane State staff writer

At age 51 with his new Roane State Community College associate degree in hand, Thomas Chartrand said he has learned a valuable life lesson.

"When anything gets hard in life, you can't give up," the Oak Ridge resident said. "If you give up, you'll never have a chance to reach your goals and dreams."

Despite numerous challenges, starting with a rough-and-tumble childhood, he didn't give up.

Chartrand took night classes at Roane State after work while helping wife Keri raise their two young children, Tristan and Kyla. He recalls often studying past midnight. Now, he says, "I feel much better about myself, knowing that I earned my degree. The last thing you want to do is look back and wished you'd done it," he said. "It's never too late."

It took him five years to earn his degree in contemporary management. That's because he was often working overtime at his day job, attending and coaching his son’s sports games, and balancing work commitments. That's why he had to cut down on the number of credit hours he could take each semester.

One class, Probability and Statistics, proved a temporary setback. Even though he had to take it again, he finished his Roane State career with a 3.4 grade point average. He said he was on the President's List once and the Dean's List twice. "With the help of all the great instructors and my advisor, David Rath, I was given the support that I can do this, and I did!" Chartrand said.

"I was so pleased that after all this time as an adult learner, he completed his degree," said Roane State Reconnect Counselor Denette Flynn, who worked with Chartrand to help him return to college after 25 years away from studies.

The Value of a Degree

Although he's been in the labor force for years, "I've learned that a high school diploma and job experience is not enough," he said. "You have to have some kind of degree to get those jobs that you wish you could have."

Now, armed with knowledge gained from such courses as management, marketing and accounting, Chartrand is actively pursuing job opportunities that can use his newfound skills.

"I've already had an offer at my current job to move up, however, the hours were not ideal for me and my family time, so I am continuing to look. My company has acknowledged my recent degree as well, so I can already see benefits in the near future in my career in manufacturing."

Chartrand overcame a turbulent early childhood. Placed in foster care when he was 5, he lived in foster homes for several years. His education suffered, and he struggled in school. "Because of my lack of fundamentals at the start of grade school and being in an unstable situation, I struggled and was getting passed through the system," he said.

He was briefly adopted by a family but was then put in Camelot Care Center in Kingston, Tenn. "That's a home for kids where they don't have anywhere else to put you," he said.

Kindness Made the Difference

That's when fate and a kind woman stepped in. Carol Hollar, a social worker at Camelot, and her husband, Ron, brought Chartrand into their home, joining the couple's three sons and two foster sons.

"Throughout my life up until then, I'd lived on hope," Chartrand said. "And my hope was to find someone like Carol. She really helped me a lot with school," Chartrand said. "I started getting better but was still struggling due to not getting the fundamentals at an early age."

"He has just had a real determination and a desire to do better," said Carol Hollar. "All I needed to do was love and encourage him."

After graduating in 1985 from Rockwood High School, Chartrand enrolled in Roane State the next year but "got frustrated, dropped out and entered the workforce."

Flash forward 26 years. Married with two children after years in manufacturing and warehousing, Chartrand said his wife, Keri, urged him to go back to college.

"All he needed was encouragement and support,” she said. “We both sat down together at the beginning of this journey and committed to it, realizing it would take a bit longer due to many demands between both of our work schedules and still spending quality family time," Keri said.

"My wife was a huge supporter in my going forward in school. She really inspired me," Chartrand said. "The support that my wife gave me – I can never thank her enough."

"He is an example of what determination, humility, and resilience of the human spirit looks like,” Keri said. “I get emotional thinking about how far he has come with so many obstacles and adversity very early on in life. He is the first in his birth family to receive a degree, and I couldn't be any prouder of him than I am now. It’s an honor to be called his wife."

Five years after starting college again, Chartrand received his associate's degree on May 6 with his wife, their two children and the woman he calls his Mom proudly looking on.

The new Tennessee Reconnect Act, which goes into effect in the 2018-2019 academic year, will provide for a "last dollar scholarship" for eligible adult Tennessee residents regardless of past academic grades or income.

For more information on the Tennessee Reconnect Act, contact Denette Flynn, the Roane State Reconnect counselor, at (865) 354-3000, extension 4896, or Visit for more information and upcoming info sessions.

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