‘Never too late’: After 20 years of delay, 46-year-old UNI graduate earns long-desired degree

‘Never too late’: After 20 years of delay, 46-year-old UNI graduate earns long-desired degree

Christine Deam with oldest son Chase, youngest son Christian,and husband Matt. For 20 years, thoughts of returning to college and finishing her bachelor’s degree have lived in the back of Christine Deam’s brain, quietly reminding her of goals left unfinished.

“It’s always been there,” she said. “The goal never went away. It’s just that life happened, you know? I was working and being a mom and we were foster parents for several years, and I never really got around to going back.”

But, in 2021, something shifted and the 46-year-old mother of two made the decision to hit the books and go back to school, enrolling at the University of Northern Iowa to complete a bachelor’s degree in criminology. She was one of roughly 1,300 students who graduated this past May. 

“Once the kids left the house and went off to college, that was really what brought the idea of trying again to finish my degree back to the front of my mind,” she said. “I realized I had the time and I needed to do things for me again, so I told myself ‘I’m going to go back to school, I'm going to drink my water, I'm gonna start working out and I’m going to try to embrace life again, for me’ and that’s what I did.”

After graduating high school, Deam said she originally planned to go into accounting or finance. 

“I am good at math — it has a simple solution and everything wraps up at the end in a nice little bow,” she said. “But it didn’t take me long to realize the thought of sitting in a cubicle, just pushing numbers for the rest of my life was enough to freak me out.”

So Deam began considering other options. 

“I had taken a college class while in high school — that was something like psychology and an introduction to criminology, and I remember finding that really interesting,” she said. “How the mind works and how people behave has always been interesting to me, and I do have three uncles who are retired police officers, so going to school to study criminology seemed to be a logical next step.”

Deam enrolled at Hawkeye Community College and completed her associates degree in criminal justice in 1997. 

“I think after that my plan was always to go on to a four-year university to complete my bachelor’s degree, but while I was at Hawkeye I got an internship at a residential correctional facility in Waterloo and after I graduated I got a full-time position,” she said. 

At that moment, Deam said she put her bachelor’s degree on hold with every intention of going back, but then life happened. 

“I was doing well working in corrections and I really enjoyed the work,” she said. “I ended up getting married, and we had two boys and got involved in the foster care system, fostering children. Life just got really big and really busy, but it was all good stuff.”

A few times over the years, Deam said she considered going back to school, and even made a couple attempts, but in the end she just had too many things on her plate. 

“Our boys were still home and we were still taking care of foster kids and I was working,” she said. “It was just a lot to juggle, and I ended up dropping out.”

Two years ago, Deam’s youngest son graduated from high school and went off to college and Deam and her husband were no longer taking in foster kids. The couple suddenly found their house was empty and they had a lot more time on their hands. 

“That’s when I started thinking about going back to school again, but I wasn’t really in a rush to jump into anything,” she said. “After a while, everything just hit the ceiling for me and I didn't know what end was up or what to do with myself.”

And then one day, Deam just knew it was time. 

“I just had this feeling like today is the day, I don't need to wait another second,” she said.

Deam sent an email through the UNI contact page and was quickly contacted by Gayle Rhineberger, a professor in UNI’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology & Criminology. 

“She was a godsend for me,” Deam said. “She had made it so easy for me to get enrolled, figure out what classes I needed to take and determine how many units I still needed to complete my bachelor’s.”

Turned out, Deam was only five classes away from her degree. 

“I totally felt like an idiot,” she said with a laugh. “Like ‘Yes, that’s me, the person who had five classes looming over my head for 20 years.’ So I was determined. I was like ‘sign me up and  let’s get this done.’”

In two semesters, on top of working full-time with the Iowa Department of Corrections, Deam completed her goal, graduating from UNI with a bachelor’s degree in criminology this past spring. She credits Rhineberger for some of her success.

But she’s not done yet. Deam said she’s considering continuing on to graduate school at UNI for a master’s degree while she has this momentum.

“I’m not yet sure what I would want to study,” she said. “I’ve thought about continuing on with criminology, but I have also considered professional leadership or public administration. Right now I just know I want to keep going.”

Deam said the past year had taught her so much, but the biggest lesson she has learned is a simple one: It’s never too late. 

“Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks,” she said. “It's been a long time coming. When I first started at UNI, I was convinced I couldn’t do it, but as I got my bearings and did well, I began to realize ‘I can do it. I can do this.’ It just goes to show, you are never too old and it is never too late to reach your goals, make a change or learn something new.”