Online Extra: Claudia Elkins

Claudia Elkins’ road to graduate school was a little longer than most master’s degree students. She started college right after high school, but decided to go to work full-time after finishing half of her junior year.

In the intervening years, she spent more than 10 years as a railroad worker, got married, joined the Navy Reserve, had three children, earned her undergraduate degree from Washburn University, worked for her alma mater as a lab manager, was deployed twice with the Navy and worked for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

After a lifetime of adventure, two life-changing events — the passing of her husband in 2014 and her retirement the next year — made her seriously consider her next step. With her children grown and with families of their own, she decided it was the perfect time to pursue the graduate degree she’d always wanted.

Two deployments with the Navy in 2008 and 2013 made her eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, a benefit she didn’t want to forfeit.

“I always thought teaching an intro to biology class or lab at my alma mater would be something fun to do in retirement, and Washburn requires a master’s degree, at a minimum, to do that,” Elkins said. “I applied to UGA because I have friends in Atlanta and Athens and I thought having friends nearby would provide a support network in those times when I thought, ‘What the heck am I doing here at my age?’”

Although she’d wanted to study botany, having taken all the botany classes available at her alma mater, she realized the field had changed to plant science. Elkins chose horticulture because, as Lisa Donovan, department head in plant biology, explained to her, “plant science is more about how plants grow while horticulture is how to grow plants,” and she was interested in learning more about growing plants and improving her gardening in retirement.

Although she found it difficult to take the GRE and enter a graduate program more than 25 years after earning her undergraduate degree, Elkins found a strong support network in the Department of Horticulture, especially in her advisor, Marc van Iersel.

“I received a D on my first exam in plant physiology and was ready to pack it up and go back home, but the entire faculty in the horticulture department was so supportive and told me to hang in there,” she said. “I buckled down and received an A on my second exam, which put me on top of the world. All of my courses have been very challenging, to say the least. UGA has wonderful resources available to students to help ensure their academic success and I’ve tapped into most of them.”

Elkins also credits the other students in her cohort and many faculty and staff members who have helped her along the way.

“I have developed lifelong friendships during my time here that I will treasure forever,” she said.

By Maria M. Lameiras

Claudia Elkins with poinsettias