A non-traditional path

Julia Duke, a 36 year-old mother of two from Stephens City, will graduate from Shenandoah University's Harry F. Byrd, Jr. Business School this Saturday with a bachelor's degree in business administration. Rich Cooley/Daily

Julia Duke of Stephens City knows her children are proud of her upcoming graduation from Shenandoah University.

“I decided to go back to school when my youngest child went to school full time,” said the 36-year-old mother of two. “I had been a stay-at-home mom for nine years, and now it was my time.”

As a military wife, Duke traveled to Japan and back with her Marine husband. In 2009, after hopping from Texas to Washington, D.C., to Virginia, her husband took a job working for the government, and she jumped at the opportunity to invest in herself.

“It’s just something that I think is important as a woman to empower yourself and send that message to our children,” she said.

She enrolled at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown in 2010, and three years later transferred to Shenandoah with a degree in general studies and a certificate in teaching. Today, she will graduate with a degree in business administration and plans to pursue a career in accounting.

Returning to school, she said, “It was really scary. You have all of the thoughts of am I going to be able to do it?”

“School has changed so much from when I graduated until now,” she said. “I had all these worries and fears.”

There’s a belief that returning to school at a later age is more challenging than transitioning smoothly from high school, but Duke said having some life experience made her feel more prepared to take on college.

“It has to do more so with all the work and determination I put in,” she said. “I actually feel that I had so much more to offer than a traditional student.”

She said living through the Great Recession as an adult and parent also helped her appreciate education more than she might have as a traditional student.

“I understand that you cannot have opportunities afforded to you, even if you’re an intelligent person, if you do not have a degree,” she said.

“I would say that education is something that can’t be taken away,” she said. “And it’s worth the investment.”

Duke paid for community college along the way and used a combination of scholarships, financial aid and loans while studying at Shenandoah, winning the University Corporation Scholarship and G. Smith Scholarship for the 2013-14 year and the L. Mark Tyree Scholarship in 2014.

Last summer she had an internship at Annandale Millwork Allied Systems in Winchester and this summer plans to intern at the accounting firm Yount, Hyde & Barbour.

She is a member of the Alpha Chi national College Honor Society, Beta Gamma Sigma International Honor Society and Alpha Kappa Psi.

In 2013, she graduated from Lord Fairfax with a 4.0 grade point average, “and now I’m graduating with a 3.9865. Which, I’m like, that would totally round to 4.0.”

Recently, Duke recalled her graduation from Lord Fairfax, when sitting with the other graduates she watched her children run to her with hugs of congratulations.

“It’s been an inspiration to them,” she said, tearing up. “I think they understand the value.”

And they do.

Said 14-year-old Sam, “I feel very lucky to have her as a mother. I hope she feels very proud of herself because of all she’s accomplished.”

Said 11-year-old Julianna, “I’m very proud of her and I love her very much and I’m so happy that she made a choice to do this.”

Today, Duke will receive the business school’s highest honor, the Dean’s Award.

“It’s been a lot of work,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, but I’m so proud of myself.”

Shenandoah University’s ceremony will stream live at su.edu/commencement-webcast. For more details, visit su.edu/commencement.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com

At a glance:

Shenandoah University will hold a commencement ceremony at 10 a.m. today  at the intramural field behind the Brandt Student Center

There will be 1,195 graduation candidates:  281 from last August, 254 from December and 660 for May

Speaker: Charles Gibson, a broadcast television journalist with more than 40 years experience, including 33 at ABC News, will deliver the commencement address and be presented with an honorary doctor of humanities degree. He retired in 2009 after nearly four years as anchor of ABC’s flagship broadcast “ABC World News,” and at the time of his retirement was the network’s principal anchor for breaking news, election coverage and special events.

Special honor: Haiti’s Minister of Public Health and Population Florence Duperval Guillaume will receive the President’s Medal.