At 57, Erwinville’s Anthony Ferdinand was the eldest Bachelor’s Degree recipient during Southern University’s December 2013 graduation ceremony.
Walking across the stage to receive his degree, Ferdinand fulfilled a more-than-30 year promise and lifelong journey.
A lifelong resident of West Baton Rouge Parish, in 1977, after several completed semesters, Ferdinand left Southern University following an employment opportunity that allowed him to work shiftwork at Exxon – but he left with the promise to his parents that he would one day return and finish his degree.
“It was a promise I made to my parents, that if I ever got a chance to finish school, I would,” said Ferdinand, who grew up in Sunrise, an unincorporated area of the parish.
A 1974 graduate of Scotlandville High School, Ferdinand spent all but his last two years of school in West Baton Rouge, attending Cohn Elementary (unofficially from the age of five), Cohn Junior High and Port Allen High School until transferring to Scotlandville for his final two years.
“If I had to label my parents I’d coin the phrase ‘staunch educationalists’ – they instilled it in us,” Ferdinand said, while speaking of his parents and seven siblings.
He said that education remains a principle in his family, as he became the seventh of his parents’ eight children, to graduate from Southern University. In fact, 27 of Ferdinand’s direct descendants attended Southern.
“Education is the key,” he said.
Ferdinand, who was in the ’74 graduating class at Scotlandville, earned his high school diploma a semester early, in December 1973, and began working toward his degree at Southern in January ’74.
“When I left school in ’77, Momma would tell me ‘you can still go back,’” he reminisced. “She would often use one of my cousin’s as an example. Former school board member Haywood Morgan - he kept going back until he got his degree. She would always remind me that I could do that, even though I was working shift work, to just keep going back. ‘Just do a few hours at a time until you graduate.’”
And though a growing family and better work opportunities caused Ferdinand to delay his higher education, his mother’s words remained on the forefront of his mind.
“I didn’t think about going back (to school) until my kids were older, but it was still there. I just didn’t have the opportunity because I was working,” he said.
He continued to work shiftwork at Exxon for 12 years until being hired at Georgia-Gulf, now Axiall, where he has been employed since 1990.
“Even in the petrochemical industry where I was working, whenever opportunity came for advanced training, I took advantage of it,” said Ferdinand, adding that through training opportunities, he became an industrial firefighting instructor, fire and space rescue instructor, certified occupational safety specialist, hazardous material tech and medical first responder. “When you stop learning, you stop living – that was one of Daddy’s sayings… I have a thirst for learning that is unquenchable… but I just didn’t have my degree.”
In 2012, Ferdinand stepped back onto Southern University’s campus and applied for several courses.
“I strategically took the classes where if I was working nights, I would have my classes (during the day),” he said. “I’d get some sleep, get up and go the class at 1 p.m., then I could get to work for 4:30 or 5 o’clock. You just have to juggle your schedule.”
Ferdinand said that he took advantage of a state statute that gives students 50 and older a break in tuition costs, and spent two years working to complete a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a minor in Business Management.
In 1986 and 1987, his mother and father, respectively, died – but the deaths of his parents only added fuel to the burning passion Ferdinand had to fulfill the promise he had made to them.
“Their dream is still here,” he said.
Ferdinand had his mortarboard, or graduation cap, decorated with the names of his parents and four deceased siblings.
“When I walked across that stage I brought them all with me, not just on my hat, but also in my heart,” he said.
Now a father of four and grandfather to seven, Ferdinand is not only the oldest undergraduate of Southern University’s class of 2013, he is an inspiration to many to follow through with goals and promises, even if it takes years.
“That seed was planted in me young and it was a promise I made; I just wouldn’t give up,” he said.