Lorene Mervis, 73, always knew she wanted to go to college. But there were things she had to take care of first – like raising 11 children, with 24 years between them, and setting them on a path toward higher education.

It's no wonder Mervis didn't take her first college class until she was well past the age most people retire. And while her age presented some unique challenges, it also brought an unexpected opportunity: the chance to earn a college degree at the same time her daughter, Danielle Bunin, was earning hers.

On May 2, Mervis and Bunin received their diplomas – Mervis, a bachelor's in sociology, and Bunin, a bachelor's in psychology – at Saint Leo University's Center for Online Learning 2014 Commencement Exercise.

"I'm so proud of her; it's not very often you get to graduate with your mom," says Bunin, who at the graduation ceremony was just days away from becoming a mom herself. "It's such an accomplishment; she had no preparation and managed to pull a 3.85."

Finding a better fit in an online degree program

Mervis and Bunin didn't start out taking classes online.

The mother and daughter moved to Weeki Wachee, Fla., from New Mexico in 2007, following the unexpected death of husband and father Alan Mervis, and enrolled at a local community college. After just a few semesters, Mervis decided an online degree program might better suit her needs.

"I felt a little bit out of place [in a campus environment]," she explains. "I met a lot of nice people, but I'm just so much older that it made me feel awkward."

Drawn to Saint Leo University's Catholic roots and respected online degree programs, Mervis made the switch in 2011. Bunin wasn't far behind, joining her in 2012.

"She had such a great experience transferring; everyone was so accommodating," Bunin recalls. "The community college wasn't the right crowd; some instructors just couldn't grasp having an older student in class."

Not that the switch was easy.

"It's a whole new way of learning," Mervis says. "Classes are only eight weeks so they're highly accelerated."

But it was technology that proved to be her greatest challenge.

"I had a lot of help from my children. I had to learn to get on the computer and use the Dropbox," she says. "In the beginning it was hard, but I had so much encouragement and help that it got a lot easier. Now I can do micro-apps, Excel and add voice overs to PowerPoint. It's been a wonderful learning experience."

Experiencing community online

Even though they never had a single class together while enrolled in Saint Leo's Center for Online Learning, mother and daughter shared their experience every step of the way.

"We're always going back and forth about the classes we are taking," Mervis says. "There has been a lot of encouragement between the two of us all of the time."

Especially these past nine months.

"Being pregnant and taking courses full time can be challenging, but I call her and she's studying and she says, 'just do it,'" Bunin jokes. "I encourage her when she gets frustrated with technology."

They had more than each other.

"The teachers have been wonderful; they're right there for you," Mervis says. "The classes are hard, but they are laid out so well – they're always giving rubrics; they're always responsive."

And despite having stepped onto the Saint Leo campus only one time during her online experience, Mervis says she has always felt connected.

"I've had a lot of the same people in classes and I feel like I know them," she says. "You get discussions going. Many times I get emails." She's even found a few "study buddies."

Bunin, who herself has only visited campus once, calls it a "great" university.

"Other colleges don't push you to your limit," she says. "I feel like Saint Leo really pushes you. The instructors are involved; they always get back to you quickly."

Paying it forward, inspiring others

Now, with her degree in hand, Mervis hopes to pay it forward.

"I'd like to get a job helping older people. A lot of them are facing problems that aren't being addressed – like seniors and technology. It's not that we're stupid, we weren't raised with it," she says. "I've had a lot of help from my children and grandchildren; now I want to pay it forward.

"Saint Leo has been a blessing for me in many ways," adds the grandmother to (almost) 23, and great grandmother to 13.

Bunin hopes to continue her online experience at Saint Leo University, pursuing a Master of Science degree in Critical Incident Management. But first she'll spend time with the baby, while her husband, Bradley, begins his online experience at Saint Leo.

"He's planning to get a master's in health care administration," she says.

Bunin hopes her mother's achievement will serve as an inspiration to others.

It's never too late to go back to college," she says. "Don't doubt yourself."

"Learning is lifelong," Mervis adds. "You have to keep at it; never give up."

What do you enjoy most about online learning or your online degree program at Saint Leo?

Other posts you may be interested in reading:

Online Degree Programs|Find The Right Fit For You

Completing An Online Degree Program At Age 74

Online Degree Programs: What Students Look For

Image Credits: Danielle Bunin, William S. Speer