When it comes to her education, Everlene Falconer won’t let anything stand in her way.
The 64-year-old received her Bachelor of Educational Studies on Saturday from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Falconer earned her degree in less than four years, while also working part-time, completing internships and caring for her five grandchildren.
Falconer decided to return to school to learn how to better communicate with her 12-year-old autistic grandson, Donovan.
Donovan, who was diagnosed with autism at age 4, loves to make home movies and build intricate Lego models.
“My body would be aching from sitting in those hard chairs in class and I would ask myself, ‘why am I doing this?’” Falconer said. “I would remind myself, it’s about Donovan.”
As she developed ways to communicate with her grandson, Falconer realized she could also apply the skills she learned in her classes to teach others.
She completed an internship with SUCCEED, an UMSL program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Falconer later began working part-time at Paraquad, teaching math and reading classes to students with disabilities.
Before teaching her first class, Falconer said she worried the students might not accept “an old lady with a cane.”
In the end, those fears were unfounded.
“I was in my element, even though I was 64 years old,” said Falconer, now a full-time employee at Paraquad. “Just because someone has a disability, doesn’t mean they can’t learn.”
Despite her success, Falconer faced a number of obstacles along the way to earning her degree.
In 2014, she began to have trouble walking from her car to the lecture hall.
“I was getting out of breath by the time I made it into the building,” Falconer explained. "I was like, ‘just make it inside, make it inside. Sit down and catch your breath.’”
Her doctors concluded she had a major blockage in her heart, but she refused to undergo surgery until she finished her classes.
“They said, ‘we need to get in there and see what’s going on.’ And I said, ‘Well, my class doesn’t end until May 16,’” Falconer said. “I wanted to finish school. They knew how stubborn I was when it came to that.”
Falconer finished her classes as planned and the following day, she had a stent implanted in her heart.
For her part, Falconer said she doesn’t have any regrets.
“I don’t think that I’d change anything that I’ve done,” she said. “I did it my way, as they say.”
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Editor’s note: The University of Missouri Board of Curators, which also governs UMSL, holds the license to St. Louis Public Radio. The station is editorially independent.