"This took me 71 years," she says, addressing the crowd of seniors gathered in the cafeteria for a celebration. "It might not have happened. But following the dream is worth the effort it takes. Even if I had lost, even if I had flunked every exam, I would have had the satisfaction of knowing I had tried."
This month, thousands of Arizona students graduated from high school and college. But Mariam Cheshire is not a typical student.
The great-grandmother is now the fourth generation in her family to graduate from Phoenix College, with an associate's degree she began chasing seven decades prior.
When Cheshire shared her story at her commencement ceremony, her 578 fellow graduates rose to their feet in the auditorium and cheered.
"Mariam is a prime example of never giving up," says Chris Haines, interim president of Phoenix College. "Obtaining her degree was important to her, and she was determined to not allow the passage of time to keep her from earning it."
Mariam began her studies in 1944 at Indiana University, intent on studying writing. Following a divorce in 1963, the newly single mom moved her 17-year-old son Fred to Phoenix with all of their possessions in the back of a beat-up Ford Mercury. In Phoenix, they lived off silver dollar coins Mariam had saved, while she searched for work and a suitable college for Fred to attend.
When Mariam discovered that tuition at Phoenix College, one of the oldest community colleges in the nation, cost just $19 a semester in 1963, she and Fred both enrolled.
"Back then, for $19 a semester you could take as many classes as you wanted," she says. "I was thrilled. This was wonderful."
A lifelong lover of learning, education, writing, and the arts, Mariam enrolled in night and weekend classes while working as a bookkeeper, travel agent, and aspiring writer.
Fred Cheshire went on to graduate and move on to Arizona State University, where he earned his doctorate in psychology. He now teaches at Glendale Community College.
Meanwhile, other pursuits stole Mariam's attention away from her studies. She was just a few credits shy of a degree when she dropped out to pursue a writing career. But she made a promise to herself that one day she would return to finish what she'd started.
The years passed, and Fred's son and three of Mariam's great-granddaughters graduated from Phoenix College.
Watching her youngest granddaughter's commencement last year reminded Mariam of the promise she'd made to herself.
"I used to say I didn't need a diploma, but it means something," she says. "It is a big deal!"
This past semester, she completed the two science classes she needed to earn her degree. Returning to class was at times exhausting, and at least once, Mariam considered abandoning her pursuit.
"Studying was not easy after 40 years of being away from the books," she says. "Fred reminded me that three generations of my family had already been through the same kind of frustrating and discouraging days. So I kept plugging away. I got a passing grade, but they are not giving me any scholarships."
Last week, the Cheshire family gathered to celebrate Mariam's graduation.
"I used to say I didn’t need a diploma, but it means something. It is a big deal. It really means something." — Mariam Cheshire
"When you've lived as long as I have, there's times in your life when you have special days," she says. "I've had some special days. I expect those two days with my family at graduation will be the last time I may ever experience something that special."
Amanda Randolph, 70, a resident of the senior living facility where Mariam lives, attended her ceremony.
"For our age group, sometimes we fall into our little niches," Randolph says. "Mariam showed what could be done. Even at our age, in our season of life, it's not about looking back and wishing all the things you could have done. There are so many things you can still do."
Mariam has no plans of slowing down. The tech-savvy octogenarian is active on social media, maintains two blogs, and recently published a novel, The Alternate Safe World of Sanctuary, which she originally composed on a typewriter in the 1970s.
"There are so many things to do in this life," she says. "If I were to make a list of everything I wanted to do, it would be endless. I haven't even gotten started yet."