COLLEGE PARK -- In 1953, Barbara Fuller knew exactly what she wanted in life when she wrote in a fifth-grade assignment that she hoped to "grow up and be a lawyer."
Although it's taken a little time -- 40 years to be exact -- Mrs. Fuller is back on track to make her dream come true. The 50-year-old Gaithersburg resident received her bachelor's degree in sociology and graduated summa cum laude yesterday from the University of Maryland at College Park.
Mrs. Fuller was among some 4,800 graduates yesterday. Commencement speaker Frank Martin Snowden, a retired Howard University classics professor, told the cap-and-gown crowd in the Cole Student Activities Building to stand up for their beliefs and "question everything."
"This is like a dream. . . . I can't believe I'm here," said Mrs. Fuller, who quit her job as a medical administrator after 29 years in the health-care field to finish her undergraduate degree. She returned to the classroom in 1991.
"When I first started, I was so terrified that I think I cried the entire first week that I was here," she recalled.
"I didn't know how to find my classes, I didn't know anyone here and I didn't know if I could do it," she said.
But with the help of her husband, Edwin, and son, Ed, a student at College Park -- she overcame her fear.
She maintained a 4.0 grade point average and served as a tutor for a statistics class.
"We're all so proud of her," said Mr. Fuller, a 49-year-old physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "She came from a period when a degree wasn't necessary. But she came through and went back to get what she had always wanted," Mr. Fuller said.
"We had difficult adjustments like getting used to living with only one income and making dinner for ourselves, but we managed . . . ."
Dr. Snowden told the graduates to be "responsible citizens" in life and stand up for their beliefs.
"Enrich your own lives and contribute richly to the lives around you," said Dr. Snowden, a pioneer in the study of blacks in the ancient world who has written several books on the subject.
"Take with you the great words of Socrates, 'The unexamined life is not worth living,' " he said.
The students heard from the University of Maryland System chancellor, Donald N. Langenberg, on the need to prevail against the tough economic times.
Borrowing from columnist Art Buchwald, Dr. Langenberg said: "I don't know if these are the best of times or the worst of times, but they're the only times we've got."
The words hit home for many students who decorated their mortar boards with the question, "Now What?"
The "now what" for Mrs. Fuller is the University of Maryland law school in Baltimore, where she will continue working toward her goal.
"I found out last Friday that I was accepted," she said.