Yvonne Smith has a lot to celebrate in 2013.

"In July, God willing, I'll be 75," she said. As the mother of five, grandmother of 11, and great-grandmother of seven (with three more on the way), there are plenty of family members to share in the joyful milestone this summer. They will be eager to honor Yvonne for the courage and zeal with which she has confronted every trial, challenge, and opportunity she has encountered throughout her life.

Which brings us to Yvonne's more imminent cause for celebration.

At the end of April, Yvonne graduates from Saint Leo University with a B.A. in liberal studies, earned through the university's online degree program.

Health issues will probably prevent Yvonne from travelling from Seattle to University Campus to walk across the stage in a cap and gown and receive her diploma from Saint Leo President Dr. Arthur Kirk, as so many online students do.

Yet, on that day, her heart will certainly be with her fellow Lions and graduates, just as it always has been – because despite living 3,000 miles and three time zones away from Saint Leo, Fla., and taking classes online, Yvonne says she has always felt strongly connected to her soon-to-be alma mater.

First in her family to graduate from high school

Born in 1938 in Ville Platte, La., Yvonne was the first in her family to graduate from high school, after which she married, and travelled the world as an Air Force wife.

Yvonne has lived in Japan and travelled to every state with the exception of Alaska, which she still plans to see. She has worked as a truck driver hauling produce across the country, as a city bus driver, a school bus driver, a hair stylist, and a travel agent. She overcame the pain of divorce, remarried a Marine Corps veteran, supported him throughout his struggles with PTSD, and enjoyed a "wonderful marriage for 13 years."

Ten months after Yvonne's husband died in 2006, her oldest daughter became ill and died unexpectedly at the age of 41

"After that, I found myself getting depressed," said Yvonne. "I needed something to ease my pain, something that would really challenge me. Then I read in the newspaper about a 95-year-old woman getting her high school diploma. A light bulb went on in my head, and I thought, 'Oh I can do that'."

"Saint Leo felt right."

Living in Henderson, Ky. at the time, Yvonne started classes at a local community college. "I was terrified," she said. "At 68, I was older than the dean! But I promised myself I would try it for a year. My husband fought for our country so I could go to school if I chose to. I decided to take advantage of that because it's what he would have wanted for me."

One class turned into two, and her first year into her second. Yvonne enjoyed learning and decided when she moved from Kentucky to Georgia to continue. A friend recommended Saint Leo University. There she found the coordinator for veterans, Greenlee Jackson, and her academic advisor, Arthur King, extremely helpful.

"Saint Leo felt right," she said.

Opting for online learning

Yvonne took classes at Saint Leo's Ft. Gillem Center. "I had some wonderful professors," she said, adding that she made the Dean's List. The experience was so positive that when she moved back to Seattle – where she had lived for 20 years – she wanted to finish her degree with Saint Leo.

To do that, she opted to continue her studies online.

"The only hesitation I had for the online classes was the typing. I had a half semester of typing in 1956 on an upright manual Underwood typewriter and wondered if I would be able to keep up with the assignments. While there are many things I don't know about computers, I have managed fairly well."

One of the advantages of online learning that Yvonne found was being able to get up in the middle of the night and change an answer or complete a paper. "I keep my computer clock set on Eastern Time so that I'm never late submitting my class work."

Staying connected while studying online

After attending classes on-campus and then switching to online learning, one would think Yvonne would have missed the connection to other students and to faculty – but not so.

"I absolutely feel connected to Saint Leo," she said. "I still have contact with a few of my former classmates in Georgia and also classmates that I met online. I love all the advisors that I have had at Saint Leo – my VA advisor, Ruth Turner, and two of my favorite people who were also my advisors, Zulie Mendoza and Mayra Tavarez. They always encouraged me and stayed in touch."

"Yvonne knows that I truly do care for her," said Zulie Mendoza who served as a student advisor for Yvonne. "She has such an upbeat positive attitude. Despite adversity and having a stroke, she has strived to move forward with her education. She really is an inspiration to all of us."

Looking beyond graduation

With a bachelor's degree complete, what challenge does Yvonne want to tackle next?

While "getting healthy" is her top priority, Yvonne hopes to do some work at the Seattle VA Hospital with veterans suffering from PTSD or community work with the homeless.

"I tell everyone, especially the ones that have criticized me for returning to school at my age, that you are never too old to learn," she said.

"But the very best thing that has occurred as a result of my attending school is that it has inspired four of my grandchildren and one of their mothers to continue their education.

"Their motto has been, "If grandma can do it, so can we."

Are you graduating this spring? What kept you motivated to finish?

Other posts you may be interested in reading:

Faith Enables Cancer Survivor To Earn Online Criminal Justice Degree

Mother And Daughter (Plus One) Share Graduation Stage

Earning A Saint Leo Degree Online In Nigeria

Image Credit: agaumont on Flickr/Creative Commons and courtesy Yvonne Smith