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Doris Webster: Perseverance Pays Off

Doris Webster
It was a moment Doris Webster wouldn't soon forget.

Following the end of her first year of high school, and after struggling in algebra, it was time to sit down with the guidance counselor to devise a plan of attack for the following school year. After briefly scanning her academic resume, the counselor looked at her and said very bluntly: "Doris, you are not college material."

She always remembered it.

Now, 44 years later, Webster, a 70-year-old retiree, will get the last laugh when she crosses the stage as part of Cleveland State's Spring 2024 commencement ceremony. While her journey to the Wolstein Center has been anything but ordinary, one thing has remained a constant: she wasn't going to give up when it came to
achieving her goal of earning a degree.

Born in Detroit, Webster's father immigrated from Italy, and her mother hailed from German American stock whose lineage traced back to Oliver Harding, a patriot who served throughout the Revolutionary War. Webster, whose early life revolved around the local Lutheran Church and its companion parochial school, spent the first eight grades of her educational career there surrounded by family, friends and a supportive environment within the close community she called home.

When high school rolled around, things changed dramatically. Due to financial circumstances, Webster began her high school career at Finney High School, one of the largest schools in Detroit. What had once been a small, close-knit group had turned into a school so big it conducted graduations twice a year. It also came at a time when the Vietnam War, political activism and racial tensions created an environment that seemingly had everyone on edge, including Webster, which would later take a toll on her academic performance.

That's when the moment came to meet with her guidance counselor, and upon being told she wasn't college material, Webster was placed in a business prep curriculum, a line of studies to equip her with the tools needed to assume secretarial work upon high school completion.

“I was not aware of the implications of his assessment at the time, but his words have resonated deeply and disturbed me ever since,” she said. “I felt it was an indictment of my intelligence and potential, and it closed the door to a future open to my peers.”

While most of her friends headed off to college, Webster was quickly hired by Michigan Bell in a clerical position in their downtown headquarters. She married a Clevelander and relocated to Northeast Ohio, and as Webster settled into her new location, an employment agency matched her skills with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. There, she managed an office that resembled Grand Central Station where a steady stream of scientists, researchers, students and media flowed through each day, serving as the gatekeeper to the Laboratory of Physical Anthropology and helping prepare manuscripts for submission to scientific journals such as Science and Nature.

As she continued to work in the lab, her desire to learn more about the natural world and the museum's scientific and educational work led her to explore college for the first time.

“In 1980, I enrolled in a class at Lakeland Community College on the ecology of Northeastern Ohio,” said Webster. "I enjoyed learning about the concepts and terminology of the sciences; [it] was my first college class, and I did very well!”

However, things would again change quickly, and any chance of continuing her education at Lakeland was put on hold following a divorce. A subsequent strain on her schedule and checking account meant she had to place her dreams on the back burner again to make ends meet. That setback didn't stop Webster from learning all she could at the museum when one of the curators who ran their wildlife center was recruiting volunteers to help raise orphan wildlife brought into the museum. Webster was immediately interested and soon learned how to raise baby raccoons and opossums.

Little did she realize that the curator would play an even more significant role in her life.

Also around this time, the CEO encouraged her to pursue the scheduling coordinator position open in the museum's Education Division, for which she was hired. Not long after, she married the curator with whom she'd worked so closely, and a son and daughter followed over the next four years. Webster had decided to switch gears and returned to Lakeland Community College, enrolling in evening classes that later led to an associate degree emphasizing early childhood education.

“In 1994, 14 years after that first college class, I walked across the stage at Lakeland and received my diploma,” said Webster. “It was a proud moment for me and my family [but I still] thought back to that guidance counselor who said I was not college material.”

That’s not exactly where Webster’s story ends.

With a degree in hand, she returned to work at the museum full-time, teaching youth classes while managing the children’s book section in the museum store. Later, she provided patrons with arguably the best natural history and science book selection in Northeast Ohio. But she didn’t rest on her laurels; a new opportunity was presented in 2002 when Webster’s journey took her to a boutique natural resources brokerage near her home as office manager. She happened to be peering out the window when something caught her attention.

“A major building project had taken place right by the workplace [when] The Holden University Center opened in 2011, directly across from Lakeland Community College,” said Webster. “I had admired the building and was curious about its function. I was intrigued that many area universities, including Cleveland State, offered courses that could lead to bachelor’s degrees [and] my curiosity was piqued.”

Following a successful 16-year stint at the brokerage, retirement beckoned in September 2018, and it was finally time to pursue her dream of furthering her college career. After transferring nearly all her credits earned at Lakeland, Webster enrolled at CSU and, over five years, plunged herself into the world of psychology and neuroscience.

She credits CSU with helping make the transition as easy as possible.

“CSU helped me greatly achieve success, and it is because of one person: Barb Szigeti, my advisor,” said Webster. “She was patient with me even though I worked full time and was older; she embraced my dream with me.”

Now, on May 11, Webster will officially realize the dream that had eluded her for many years and become a CSU graduate, but only after lending advice to those in the same situation.

“The advice I would give others is to keep going and never give up,” she said. “If you have that desire to sign up for yet another course, even if you think you could never take another course in your life, just sign up, one course at a time. You will grow and enjoy the people you will meet, doing the same things you are.”

She quickly thanked her husband, Harvey, and their children, for sustaining her and being interested in what she calls her latest "adventure in neuronal synapses."

One thing is sure: she will have someone else in mind when she takes that journey across the stage.

“What the future holds, I am not certain,” she said. “But I do know when I take hold of my diploma, in my mind, I will be thinking back to ninth grade and the guidance counselor who thought I was not college material.”

If he could only see her now.