When 70-year-old Lillie Thompson Smith walked across the Davis Theatre for the Performing Arts stage at Troy University’s Montgomery Campus on Dec. 18 to receive her master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, it was the realization of a lifelong dream and the culmination of a lot of hard work. However, the new TROY graduate says her journey is far from done.
“I got my associate degree and then my bachelor’s and now I’m receiving my master’s,” said Smith, a U.S. Postal Service retiree. “I want to continue and go into a field where I can work and go back to school and get my Ph.D.”
For Smith, however, it isn’t just about accumulating knowledge and degrees. She wants to put those degrees and that experience to work, the first step of which will be becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC).
“I need to get my LPC. I am scheduled to take the NCE (National Counseling Examination) in January,” she said. “I would like to work with older people. A lot of older people deal with grief, and they give up. I want to help them be able to continue to work and not go home and just sit down. Most of the time that is when your health starts to decline – when you go home and give up, waiting to die – and yet you still may have 20 or 30 years to live. You can still be productive and help someone. I would like to help older people to help others. I think it will help society. We wouldn’t have so many chronic ailments because a lot of those become problems when we stop moving.”
Since her retirement, Smith hasn’t stopped moving, and after following her military husband and raising her kids, she decided it was time for her to pursue her dreams.
“I have always wanted to further my education, but raising kids and working made it hard to do,” she said. “I was a dependent of a military person and followed him all over the country and overseas with his assignments. Once he retired and the children were grown, it was time for me to go back and do what I wanted to do, which was get my education.”
Smith admits that she didn’t know much about where to begin her educational journey. That’s when she learned about the TRIO program, federally funded educational opportunity outreach programs.
“I started with the TRIO program and through that they helped me get into the McNair’s Scholars Program,” she said. “At my age, I didn’t even think they would accept me, but they did, and I learned so much through that program. We traveled to different universities and different places, and my view of the world just changed. Even though I had traveled so much, the knowledge that I gained through that program inspired me to keep going.”
The McNair’s Scholar Program, named for the late Dr. Ronald E. McNair who served as a mission specialist aboard the ill-fated U.S. Challenger space shuttle, prepares first generation, economically disadvantaged or underrepresented undergraduates for graduate school by providing them with graduate-level research experience and support for the graduate school application process. Participants attend monthly seminars that offer training in research writing and design and presentations.
Smith began work on her associate’s degree at TROY in 2017 at the age of 64, and then continued forward to receive her bachelor’s degree. While she briefly entertained the notion of stopping following her bachelor’s degree, Smith decided to pursue her master’s degree. While Smith was able to complete most of her courses on the Montgomery Campus, she also took courses online and in Phenix City, and was involved in the McNair program in both Dothan and Troy.
“I started my master’s program in 2020. Once I got started, I just continued to go on through,” she said. “A lot of times it got hard, but I had some good professors who inspired me, pushed me and told me I could do it. I wanted to understand, I wanted to learn, and I had professors who helped me do that. They gave me the material and showed me where to get it, how to study and pushed me to do it and I did it.”
It was the support of both faculty and family that helped Smith realize her goal of receiving her master’s degree.
“It has been hard, but I have enjoyed every minute of it,” she said. “There were so many people that helped me along the way; so many people I could name. I definitely didn’t do it by myself. My sons – Michael, Mark and Carl – and my husband. My mom has passed, but she would be so proud of me right now. My sister went back to school and got her bachelor’s. My niece went back and got her bachelor’s, and my son went back and got his bachelor’s. There are so many people in my family that were inspired to go back to school, and they did. They felt like they couldn’t let momma outdo them.”
One professor that provided encouragement along Smith’s journey was Dr. Rodney Maiden, Associate Professor in the Department of Counseling, Rehabilitation and Interpreter Training at the Montgomery Campus.
“Lillie is what I call an anomaly. She is very sharp, but she doesn’t realize how sharp and how good she really is,” Dr. Maiden said. “She always made sure that she understood the assignment and turned it in on time. She is one of those students that we truly love. She never complains. I think she took on more of a maternal role. I think other students see her as kind and sweet, and they also see her as someone who is intelligent and knowledgeable. She has that type of nature about her, and her character is impeccable.”
Smith said she hoped her journey would serve as inspirations to others.
“You’re never get too old to go back to school. You never get too old to improve yourself. You never get too old to start living,” she said. “Don’t give up, just keep going. Even as we get older, life can get better. We can retire from one job, but that just gives us the opportunity to start a new career, a new chapter. Start something new, get a new experience in life. It will keep you young.”