Great-grandmother earns a college degree at 78: ‘I really love learning’

Vivian Cunningham’s lifelong passion for learning led her to a moment she won’t forget earlier this month when the 78-year-old great-grandmother was handed her college diploma from Samford University.

“If I could have done cartwheels across the stage, I would have,” Cunningham told TODAY.

The retired Alabama Power Company worker, mother of two, grandmother of three and great-grandmother of three spent six years working toward her degree in liberal studies at the university in Birmingham, Alabama.

“I say follow your dreams, don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done, keep pushing and keep God in the plan,” she said.

She was joined by her family, including her 95-year-old mother, for a proud graduation ceremony that she hopes serves as an inspiration.

“My friends have called and told me that it has motivated them,” she said. “And some of the young ones in my family, too. They said if I can do it, they can do it.”

Two weeks after her graduation, a surprise by TODAY with Hoda & Jenna as well as Samford University made sure she’s all set to now push for a master’s degree. Best Buy surprised Cunningham with a new Dell laptop on TODAY Thursday, and Samford University announced it was giving her a scholarship to pay for a master’s degree whenever she chooses to pursue it. The school has also established the Vivian Cunningham Leadership Scholarship to honor her legacy and inspire future generations.

“Oh my goodness,” a stunned Cunningham said.

Cunningham credited her daughter, Tarra Barnes, son Donald Cunningham and her son-in-law, retired Army Col. Rob Barnes, along with Samford Office of Professional Studies director Bryan Gill and associate director Nicole B. Otero with keeping her on track.

“I felt like I wanted to quit at times, but they were behind me 100%,” she said. “They kept pushing me.”

“We’re so elated,” Tarra Barnes told TODAY. “She set a goal, and it took her a little journey to get there, but she finished it. She really has motivated our family.”

She also has motivated her daughter to pursue her PhD at North Carolina A&T after she earned an undergraduate degree at Averett University and a master’s degree at Webster University. Tarra’s son, Jordan, is also now in a master’s degree program at the University of Miami after graduating from Old Dominion University.

“Education is a big deal in our family,” Barnes said.

Cunningham spent 29 years working as a custodian and then as the head of the mailroom for the Alabama Power Company before retiring in 1992. She then used the company’s tuition reimbursement program to earn an associate degree in paralegal studies from Virginia College, but she wanted to continue her education beyond the one degree.

“AARP tells us to take some classes and do something instead of just sitting down and being retired, so I kept going,” she said.

She took night classes for years with students half her age or younger.

“I enjoyed being in the classroom,” she said.

Cunningham then had to make the adjustment to remote classes on the computer during the pandemic in order to finish her degree.

“It was kind of hectic for me because I didn’t know too much about technology, so I had to have my daughter help me with that to learn to do it virtually,” she said.

Now she’s contemplating getting that master’s degree.

“I love to read to get more knowledge,” she said. “I really love learning.”

Scott Stump is a New Jersey-based freelancer who has been a regular contributor for TODAY.com since 2011, producing news stories and features across the trending, pop culture, sports, parents, pets, health, style, food and TMRW verticals. He has tackled every assignment from interviewing astronauts on the International Space Station to prison inmates training service dogs for military veterans.