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Like Daughter, Like Mother

By Emily Yaghmour
Her second daughter was a freshman at George Mason when Nancy Titus (B.I.S. '85) decided to go back to school. "I was frustrated because I had not achieved what I had wanted academically or professionally," explains Titus. She had attended college for two years right after she graduated from high school, but then she had dropped out to get married and have children.

That made Titus a perfect candidate for George Mason's Bachelor of Individualized Study program, which is specially designed for adults returning to school to finish the degree they did not receive at the traditional college age. So at the age of 40, Titus set out to obtain a bachelor's degree with a concentration in psychology and organizational development. "My parents were strong believers in the value of education, and it almost broke their hearts when I didn't finish at the traditional age, so when I went back to school, they were ecstatic," Titus remembers.

But like many adults returning to school after years of doing other things, she was worried that she might not measure up as a student. The fact that her daughter had a 4.0 G.P.A. compounded that anxiety. At first, this lack of confidence in herself made her expectations modest: "I wanted to do well enough that I wouldn't embarrass Mary," says Titus. In fact, she was so determined to do well that, in her first class, she and an equally determined classmate did so much work for extra credit that they discovered they only had to score a 20 on the final exam to receive an A in the course.

Mary Yaggy Nissen (B.S.N. '85) realizes now that her own success as a student probably stepped up the pressure her mother felt to succeed academically. According to Nissen, both she and her mom have competitive, type A personalities. Despite Titus's self-doubt, Nissen says she never for a minute doubted that her mother would succeed, and she was proud of her for mustering the courage to go back to school after so many years. "It was quite a challenge to go from being a housewife to being a student," says Nissen.

Because of their hectic schedules and many responsibilities, the two women lived fairly separate lives during their college years. While Nissen lived on campus and took classes during the day, her mom lived at home in Arlington and commuted to class in the evening. While Nissen stayed busy with sorority activities and her responsibilities as a resident advisor, her mom had her hands full with Nissen's two younger siblings, who lived at home. Titus recalls once walking across campus with some friends and hearing "Mom! Mom!" She continued walking, not realizing it was her daughter calling to her. When Titus finally realized who it was, she laughed and told her, "I guess I don't answer to 'mom' on campus."

When the two learned that they would be graduating together, they decided to throw a huge party. It is a source of satisfaction to Titus and Nissen that Titus's parents were able to attend that party. Her father, who is now deceased, purchased a new suit for the party, Titus recalls. "He was very frail at the time, but he stood the entire time leaning on a cane, grinning ear to ear. . . . It was like it was his own accomplishment."

Titus went on to obtain a master's degree in social work from Barry University in south Florida. Today, she has a private practice as a psychotherapist in Coral Gables, Fla., near Miami, and is very active in several professional organizations. She served for two years as chair of the Miami-Dade National Association of Social Workers and participates in a newly formed coalition to deliver health care to the uninsured and underinsured.

Nissen, who is married and has two young children, works as a surgical nurse for a plastic surgeon in Arlington, Va., in addition to working in the operating room at Arlington Hospital. According to Titus, Nissen has a reputation in her field for the quality of her work, and several physicians have sought to hire her. "It's easy to be extremely proud of her," she says.

Because every path you choose in life requires some sacrifice, Titus has some regrets: by choosing to go back to school, she had less time to spend with her children. But she's deeply grateful to each of her four children for the encouragement they gave her as she pursued her degree. And she's proud that her choice to return to school enabled her to set an important example for her children: you're never too old to take on challenges.

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