By Sarah Colson
On Saturday, Sarah Elliott will walk at the front of the graduation ceremony at East Tennessee State University, but she won’t be receiving her diploma.
This special opportunity is possible because Elliott is a part of the Golden 50’s Club, an alumni group that is invited each spring to march in the ceremony. Elliott will walk with her granddaughter, Meredith Hardy, who will cross the same stage her grandmother did 64 years ago to receive her own diploma.
Elliott received her bachelor of science degree in home economics and library science from ETSU in 1951. As a young woman during that era, pursuit of higher education was not as common as it is today. But Elliott’s two brothers left Cosby, near the foot of the Smoky Mountains, for college, so she assumed she could do it too.
“My mother always emphasized that you learn or do something to take care of yourself, and then if you marry and don’t have to work, it’ll still be a plus,” she said. “Most girls my age got married after high school. So many people would say to my father, ‘Why are you sending her to college? She’ll just get married.’ And he’d say, ‘She has just as much right to go to college as her brothers.’ It was important to our family that we get an education.”
Elliott was not just driven to higher education, but in all areas of her life as well.
“It wasn’t even common that women drive,” Elliott said. “My mother always told me when I was a little tiny girl, I’d say, ‘There’s three things I’m going to do– I’m going to drive a car, I’m going to teach school, and I’m going to play the piano.’”
“And she does all three!” her granddaughter chimed in, laughing.
Following her education at ETSU, Elliott taught first grade in the area for 23 years. Her daughter, Donna Hardy, followed in her footsteps. Donna spent time at ETSU, receiving her masters of science in communication disorders in 1997 during a 36-year career as a public school speech language pathologist.
That emphasis on higher education now extends two generations. On Saturday Meredith Hardy will graduate summa cum laude with a bachelor of science in exercise science. Along with her academic accomplishments, Meredith played volleyball all four years at ETSU and now has agents attempting to find her a professional volleyball career somewhere in Europe.
“With sports or just being a female student, I’m not significant because I’m a female,” Hardy said. “It’s because I’m goal-oriented and I want to be independent and I was taught that by the women in my life, and the men in my life, who supported that. It was just the mindset of my family and I’m extremely grateful for that.”
Meredith said part of her appreciation for a college education comes from her admiration for the teachers in her family. She has seen fellow students at ETSU who are the first in their families to graduate from college and their educational journey has been more difficult because of that.
“I think especially coming from a line of teachers, that’s a big part that played a role in my life, I’ve learned to appreciate teachers and appreciate education,” she said. “Not everybody gets the opportunities that I’ve gotten.”
This family mindset and focus on achievement has a long history. One hundred years ago, Elliott said, her grandfather, understanding the importance of education, even donated some of his land for the building of a small, public schoolhouse.
“Then when my father was a boy, he would be working and he would stop his work and go in and take math classes because he loved math and then he’d leave school and go back to work,” Elliott said. “It was just because he liked the math. He was using it because they would grow tobacco and things and he would have to measure his plots.”
Elliott said the main reason her parents wanted her to pursue higher education was to be able to provide for herself, especially in an era when so many men were going off to fight in World War II.
“I had a grandfather who passed away very early in life and another grandfather who became crippled and could not work,” she said. “So my grandmother ran a country store and she also kept boarders and would feed their horses and cook them a meal. She had to make a living on her own because her husband was sick and couldn’t do it.”
Donna Hardy said she has the same hopes for her daughter and knows what it’s like to have strong, female role models like her own mother.
“That (pointing to her mother) became my role model; that’s what I saw,” Donna said. “My parents went to college and I just felt like that was what I was going to do. That’s what I wanted to do. The important thing for me is to have a purpose. And that was my choice, to go to college to pave the way for that purpose, not to say that someone who doesn’t go to college doesn’t have a purpose. But I think by getting a higher education, more doors and windows are opened up for you. There are a lot more options.”
Donna and Meredith are not the only ones in Elliott’s family reaping the positive benefits of higher education passed down from generation to generation.
“I’ve been so blessed to have seven grandchildren and the youngest one now has started college,” Elliott said. “All the others will be college graduates — every one of them.”
Throughout her four years at ETSU, Meredith Hardy kept the legacy of independence passed down from her grandmother and mother in the back of her mind. And in just two generations, the obscure idea of a woman pursuing higher education is now very much the norm.
“To be able to take care of yourself—that applies today,” Hardy said. “I mean, marriage is a great thing and I hope to be married someday, but regardless, I should be able to take care of myself. I’ve been raised to be an independent thinker, an independent woman, and I’ve grown up that way because of the women in my life who can take care of themselves – and they do it really well.”