UMGC Graduate Takes Lifelong Learning to Heart—and to the Classroom

Jerry Williamson to Deliver Student Keynote at University’s Winter Commencement Ceremony, Dec 14.

That Jerry Williamson will receive his diploma this month for a University of Maryland Global Campus Master of Science degree is not newsworthy. Thousands of people earn those degrees.

That he is applying to enter a doctoral program and expects to begin in the fall 2020 term if he is accepted, also is not news. Scores of students are enrolled in those programs.

What sets Williamson apart from all the others is—his age.  He is 80 years young. And the doctoral program he hopes to enter will take at least another five years to complete.

That makes him the poster child for life-long learners. “Jerry Williamson has a lot to teach younger students about the value of continuously learning new things,” said UMGC President Javier Miyares.

Born in 1939 in Washington, D.C., Williamson grew up in suburban Bethesda, Maryland, and graduated from high school, as he said, “without a stellar record.” His father, he explained, was a naval officer who was not at home enough to provide the proper motivation.

Instead of college, Williamson enlisted in the Navy where he served as a quartermaster. He became an expert in navigation, semaphore and flashing light signaling, in reading signal flags and keeping charts up to date, and in checking daily the accuracy of the chronometer.

And directly after leaving the Navy, he enrolled at the University of Maryland but dropped out in less than a year. He said he still did not have the proper motivation.

He got married, went to work, and that was the way life seemed to be going—until what he called his “life changing epiphany” when, along with his parents and his wife, Marie, he attended his brother’s graduation from Valparaiso University.

“I sat there and looked at the graduates going across the stage to receive their diplomas. I said to myself, ‘there’s no reason I can’t do that.’  On the way home, I announced without consulting anyone that I was quitting my job in the fall and going back to Maryland to get my degree. And that’s what I did.”

That led to his 40-year career in the heating, ventilating and air conditioning business, mostly as the head of his own company. He even got contracts to do training sessions in Europe for IBM and NATO. But 12 years ago, he turned the company over to his son—while keeping active in it—and looked around for something else to do.

Since then, he has been a full-time professor at Montgomery College teaching HVAC courses.

“Almost half of [the students in] every class [are] from another country,” he said. “I told the students, this is a good trade. It has served me well for 52 years. No way that HVAC is going to be an obsolete endeavor. It gets more and more technical, and it changes almost every year, which is one reason I stay connected to the company so that I can keep up to date and tell my students what to expect.”

Working in academia got him interested in advanced degrees. Why not get a master’s degree? And why not use that as a springboard for a doctorate?

So, Williamson looked around at options and focused on UMGC. He said it attracted him because it was related to his undergraduate alma mater, it had a better reputation than the for-profit universities he considered, and it offered classes at Shady Grove, not far from his home.

Looking at what he could study, he decided on earning a Master of Science in management.  That program gave him an interdisciplinary approach to a business education that he hopes will open the door for acceptance to a doctoral program. And during his studies, he  soon learned that he preferred online classes rather than face-to-face or hybrid options.

“With the online classes, I was with students from Africa, Asia, and all over the United States,” he said. “You get to talk to the other students, especially when you get on a team project.”

Everyone introduces themselves at the beginning of each online class. That’s when Williamson said he surprises fellow students and professors with his breadth of experience and his advanced age.

“I usually say I will bring a senior citizen’s perspective to the class,” he said. “I take a financial class, and I can talk about the 19 percent mortgage rate in the early 1980s. I bring in real life situations that may not be in the purvue of the average student.”

He’ll be sharing some of his life experience, inspiration and advice more broadly when he delivers the student commencement address to fellow graduates during the UMGC 2019 Winter Commencement afternoon ceremony—the second of two ceremonies—on Saturday, Dec. 14, at the Xfinity Center at College Park.

Williamson knows what advice he’ll give: “You can do it.  I say, what is the next thing in line for you? Is it the next degree? Whatever it is, take it on with gusto, without fear—you will make it.”

He said he’s reluctant to say which doctoral degree he is applying for. It is a competitive process. He might not be accepted. But, he said, he’s ready to take it on—and looks forward to his next graduation when he’s 85-or-so years old!

In the meantime, because, after all, there’s only so much time to squeeze in everything he wants to see and do, he looks forward to balancing his potential future studies by indulging his other two passions—restoring his 1950 Ford convertible and tooling around on his Harley-Davidson.

Cover Photo: Jerry Williamson shares the finer points of HVAC with his students. Photo by Pete Vidal, Montgomery College Office of Communications.