BRUNSWICK — Lisa Bouffard wasn’t thinking about a diploma 18 years ago when she stepped into a Bowdoin classroom for the first time. But with only days left in her 32nd class, walking across the stage at commencement is very much on her mind.

“I didn’t have a lot of faith in myself that I would be able to do this,” Bouffard said. “I said I was just going to take one more class and see what happens. Then I’d take one more.”

Eighteen years after taking her first class at Bowdoin, Bouffard will graduate May 25. Over nearly two decades as a student, Bouffard has taken an average of one class a semester while juggling her full-time job in the college’s dining services department and family responsibilities. And during that time, she has watched her own three children graduate from college and has welcomed four grandchildren.

Bouffard, 56, is believed to be the first Bowdoin employee to complete her degree start-to-finish at the college. Other employees have completed degrees after transferring credits they earned elsewhere, said Doug Cook, a spokesman for the college. Bowdoin employees can take classes at a reduced cost per credit hour and are eligible for tuition reimbursement for up to eight semesters.

Jennifer Scanlon, a professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies, first met Bouffard about 18 years ago, around the time Scanlon came to the college from a university in New York. She said she has watched Bouffard grow into her own, find her voice intellectually and navigate the challenges that come with being a nontraditional student balancing multiple responsibilities.

“She’s really bright and determined and thoughtful,” said Scanlon, who is also Bouffard’s adviser. “I knew we’d get to this someday, and here we are.”

DOING SOMETHING FOR HERSELF

Bouffard grew up in Saco, one of six children raised by a father who worked for Delta and a mother who stayed home with the kids. She worked two jobs during high school and, when she graduated from Thornton Academy in 1981, going to college simply wasn’t an option.

She worked a few jobs in the Saco area before moving to Brunswick in 1984. Since 1996, Bouffard has worked an administrative job at Bowdoin Dining handling money and bills. She plans to continue in that job until she retires. Each spring, she works the school’s traditional graduation festivities, including a lobster bake the night before commencement.

It wasn’t until 2001 that Bouffard – working full time with three kids at home – felt she needed to do something for herself. She decided to take a class at Bowdoin, but she didn’t want to audit one as many employees do.

“From Day 1 I said if I’m going to work my butt off for this, I want a grade in the end,” she said. “I wanted to take it for credit.”

It had been 20 years since Bouffard sat in a classroom.

The first class Bouffard took was introduction to poetry with professor Anthony Walton, chosen largely because she knew she liked poetry. The class, she said, was “scary, intimidating, hard and awesome all at once.”

“I was intimidated being there. The kids intimidated me, the work intimidated me. I was very nervous to talk out loud,” she said. “(Walton) took the time to say ‘Look, you’ve got this. You can talk out loud.’ So I did.”

Though she had already spent years on campus, Bouffard found herself experiencing many things for the first time, including using the Bowdoin library. She joined her fellow students for study groups and discussions outside class. She stayed up late to write papers and study for exams.

By the end of that first semester, Bouffard was discovering her love of learning.

“I said I was going to take just one more (class) and that’s how it started,” she said.

JUGGLING STUDIES, FAMILY AND WORK

Mary Lou Kennedy, the director of Bowdoin Dining, remembers when Bouffard first approached her about taking a class.

“She had a passion for doing something she was unable to do when she was younger,” Kennedy said.

Each semester, Kennedy and Bouffard would get approval from human resources and professors for Bouffard to take another course. Together, the dining staff worked around Bouffard’s class schedule, occasionally rescheduling meetings to make it work. Bouffard’s co-workers became used to seeing her show up early, stay late and squeeze in studying every free minute she had.

“A lot of people who work here know that when I’m in my car at lunch, I’m doing homework,” she said.

After taking eight classes, Bouffard applied for admission to Bowdoin. Like any other student, she did interviews and submitted recommendations. Her previous experience taking classes allowed her to skip the essay portion of the application.

Bouffard found out she had been accepted as a matriculating student from a now-retired admissions employee who was so excited she hand-delivered the acceptance letter. Bouffard was thrilled.

In those early years, Bouffard took a class on gender and women’s studies and immediately felt a click. Fascinated by the way women navigate their religion, she decided to double-major in gender and women’s studies and religion, often earning A’s and B’s in her courses.

As time went on, Bouffard learned to balance her coursework with her job and caring for her family. Her daughter Emily, just 8 when Bouffard took her first class, would use flashcards to quiz her mother while they were driving to day care. She stayed up late into the night finishing papers and got to her office before dawn to work. And, unable to connect with her computer to write, Bouffard hand-wrote every paper, then typed it out before handing it in.

On the day she married her husband in the Bowdoin chapel, Bouffard ran across campus to pass in a paper.

LEGACY OF LEARNING

Through the 32 classes she took to earn her degree, Bouffard never sought out attention. When a professor would split students into groups, she sometimes worried how her classmates would react to working with the “old lady” in class. But it was in those situations where she made the best connections, she said, giving her a unique and special relationship with Bowdoin students.

“I actually feel like I got to see the sides of students most employees at the college do not because I know firsthand the struggles they are facing with their workload,” she said.

After 18 years, Bouffard is no longer intimidated by the students in her classes.

“I’m in awe of how they can put together their thoughts on such a quick moment,” she said. “I’m not like that. I have to think about it.”

Scanlon, the professor, said Bouffard had made “a significant contribution to many, many Bowdoin students.”

“Lisa gives a lot of people joy. That’s inside and outside the classroom,” Scanlon said. “It’s been a great to share in that joy as she’s come along. Not that she hasn’t had moments of hardship, but those are always paired with the joy she takes in learning.”

There were many moments throughout the years when Bouffard doubted herself. Looking back, she still wonders how she was able to juggle her schedule and homework, but she is quick to point out she didn’t do it alone.

“There has absolutely been frustration and tears and moments of ‘I can’t do this,'” Bouffard said. “But my family and friends have totally encouraged me. I don’t think they even know how much they have pushed me forward.”

Crosby Fox, one of Bouffard’s children, said it has been amazing for her and her siblings to watch their mother reach a goal she set for herself so long ago.

“To see her achieve something and really stay committed through so much is really inspiring,” Fox said. “She’s always been a very humble person and a doesn’t speak her mind right away. As she has gone through her schooling, she has this sense of confidence. It’s pretty incredible to witness.”

With graduation approaching, Bouffard’s family is ready to celebrate. They’ll go to the lobster bake the night before commencement, and a big group will gather the next morning for the ceremony. Bouffard is sure she’ll cry when she’s receives her diploma while her family cheers for her from the audience.

“I feel like we’ve been planning the party for years,” Fox said.


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