Commitment Plus Perseverance Equals Academic Achievement For Claflin Graduate

May 06, 2016
Claflin's Oldest Graduate Helen ChappellGiving up was never an option for Helen Chappell, who at age 69,  has the distinction of being the oldest graduate in Claflin University’s Class of 2016.  It took 50 years, but the Florida native will receive her bachelor’s degree in sociology/criminal justice administration at Claflin’s 146th Commencement Ceremony at 11 a.m. on Saturday at the South Atlantic Seventh-day Adventist Worship and Convention Center, 514 Neeses Highway, Orangeburg, S.C.

“I didn’t tell a lot of people I had previously attended college,” she said. “I have been very fortunate throughout my life but I knew I would never be truly satisfied until I earned my degree. I just did not know how or when it would happen. This just shows you the Lord knows what we don’t.”

Chappell vividly remembers what caused her to leave Claflin just before Thanksgiving in 1966 only a few months after she arrived on the campus.

Chappell remembered that Orangeburg seemed like a big city at the time, especially for a country girl from Sanford, Fla. However, she adjusted well and felt the people at Claflin were like family.

“I immediately felt I belonged,” Chappell, said. “It felt good to be in college.”

But one day she decided to take part in a talent show for freshmen students. Chappell doesn’t remember feeling nervous about taking the stage and even dreamed, at one point, had career ambitions of becoming an actress.

But that all changed once the pianist began playing Stevie Wonder’s “Blowin In The Wind,” and her performance was not what she intended.

“I was singing in one key and the piano was in another,” she said. “I was very embarrassed.”

That night Chappell made the decision to pack her bags and take a bus back home to Sanford.

“Was I a perfectionist? I guess I wasn't strong enough to go through with it and get up the next day for school,” she said.

After leaving Claflin, Chappell, made a promise to herself that by age 26 she would return to college and graduate.   However, she went back home to Florida and married a high school sweetheart. The couple had five children -- three girls and two boys. She later divorced but a second marriage took her to Winter Haven, Fla.  In 1993, Chappell began working for the city of Lakeland as a typist.  A year later she began working in Lakeland’s City Hall. Chappell found a passion for customer service and for 19 years, she was one of the most familiar faces and well-liked personalities at City Hall.

“You’re kind of the usher at the door,” she said describing her former job. “You’re representing who you work for. I’m not representing myself; but a team of people bigger than myself.”

When she retired in March of 2012, the city rewarded Chappell, handsomely. A commemorative plaque was affixed to her desk and city officials proclaimed March 9 “Helen Chappell Day” in honor of her outstanding service.

With a longtime career behind her and nothing tying her down to Lakeland, Chappell, began to reflect on her short time at Claflin and what it would mean if she could finally finish what she started.

The Return to Claflin Begins With A Photograph

Helen Chappell in 1966Back when Claflin University was Claflin College, students would visit Cecil Williams’ photography studio to have pictures taken. Chappell sat for a photo session back in 1966 and learned not too long after that Williams had put her portrait up in his window.

“I felt like wow -- I’m a star,” she said.

More than 40 years later a Google search revealed that Williams was still in Orangeburg. She contacted him and discovered he also had the photograph.


Chappell’s son called it a miracle. She said it was just the start of her reconnecting with Claflin.

In 2011, Chappell, contacted Michael Ziegler, Claflin’s director of admissions and began the process for being re-admitted to the University. She took a tour of the campus during the summer marking the first time she had returned since 1966.

“It felt like time had stood still,” she recalls. “It was like déjà vu. The place was speaking to me and calling me back home.”

Chappell enrolled in the sociology/criminal justice administration program in the Center for Professional and Continuing Studies.  She wanted a degree that offered a diversified curriculum and was compatible with her interest in government and public service. 

“Working with people was a big part of my job during my 19 years with the city of Lakeland,” Chappell said. “I’ve always had a passion for helping others.”

When Chappell started classes in the fall of 2012, her classmates were a mix of students from different ages and backgrounds -- baby boomers and millennials. Being around students who were considerably younger was daunting at first. But she discovered they had more in common than she expected.

“Initially I thought I was the old lady in the class but that was not the case,” she said. “We learned from each other. I shared with them some of my experiences and I learned a lot from them.  They saw in me that learning really is a life-long process.  And I recognized that this generation will be the visionary leaders of the future.”

 An internship with the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Department taught Chappell that customer service could lend itself to community outreach. Whether it was conducting a wellness check on senior citizens in the community or assembling bags with safety information for children and families, Chappell found that her experience in serving others was transferable to a public safety agency.

“Customer service is the same everywhere. “It’s all about delivery,” she said.

Helen also settled into campus life, volunteering in the Center for Professional and Continuing Studies and riding in the program’s first-ever float in Claflin’s annual Homecoming parade.

She also found a temporary church home at New Mount Zion Baptist Church.

Those moments helped remove any doubts she had about returning to Claflin

“The campus life was so inviting. It was like a family,” she said. “I never thought about taking the bus again.”

“Helen returned to Claflin for intrinsic reasons to complete her education,” said Dr. Cindye Richburg, executive director of the Center for Professional and Continuing Studies and one of Chappell’s instructors. “She could have gone to any other school, but she left Florida and returned to Orangeburg to finish what she started at Claflin. It takes perseverance and motivation and she definitely has those qualities,” added Richburg.

Chappell is not sure what she will do after graduation, but she is considering a second career in counseling. It’s something that, along with better officer training, she feels could be an answer to some of the issues facing law enforcement agencies in minority communities

“I feel like I can be effective in youth and adult counseling,” said Chappell. “I enjoy working. I feel like I’m capable of doing more. If I don’t, I’m selling myself short.”

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