- Shirley Duffy went back to college to get her degree in landscape architecture, a lifelong passion of hers.
- Duffy has fond memories of her time on campus and feels bittersweet about graduating after five years.
- With her degree, Duffy plans to continue volunteering and stay connected to the Blue Hen community.
While the saying “the world is your oyster” has been an age-old call-to-action for youth, beckoning them to chase their dreams and look forward to a long life ahead, this 73-year-old University of Delaware graduate has the world opening up for her, too.
Shirley Duffy, a Newark resident, has attended the University of Delaware for the past five years to earn her bachelor of science degree in landscape architecture from the school’s College of Agriculture & Natural Resources.
The landscape architecture major is all about plants, with an emphasis on the environment and how individuals can help others by teaching them about plants and helping them make their gardens successful, said Duffy.
“I have been gardening since I was old enough to walk, but I did not pursue that as a career. Instead, I was a medical technologist and ended up in the pharmaceutical industry at AstraZeneca,” said Duffy. “Through that time, I kept thinking about gardening and doing it in my free time. It was my hobby.”
Although Duffy received her first bachelor of science degree 50 years ago, and later worked toward a master of science degree but did not complete it, she knew she wanted a change of pace and had her sights set on the gardening realm.
Her longtime hobby led to her applying for and being accepted into the university’s Cooperative Extensions master gardener program and, later, officially enrolling as a Blue Hen.
Over the years, Duffy has held various executive positions in programs related to her coursework, volunteered with organizations in Wilmington, and took ecological gardening classes at Mt. Cuba Center to expand her knowledge about horticulture. She even assisted with preparations for the Philadelphia Flower Show in recent years.
Reflecting on her experience at UD, Duffy highlights her love for learning and connecting with others, adding that the pandemic proved to be a big hurdle to overcome.
“I think the biggest impact for me was not being in person with my classmates. I wanted to be with those young people,” she said. “I so enjoyed their humor, their creativity, just knowing what was going on. Through the pandemic, I didn’t have that contact.”
With Duffy being in her 70s, the pandemic had an “extra layer of fear” when it came to navigating a COVID-19 world and wondering how classes would resume in-person instruction safely.
Both her in-laws died during the pandemic, and Duffy took heed in getting vaccinated, wearing a mask and following public health advisories, she said.
While safety was her No. 1 priority, her online courses couldn’t compare with the lively feel of being on campus with her peers and getting to mingle with youth, she said, comparing online coursework to a one-note musical score and in-person courses to a “whole orchestra playing.”
And despite being older than most students on campus, Duffy found it exciting, and at times humorous, to have that perspective.
“It’s kind of fun to walk around the university campus with gray hair because people think I know where things are, [that] I’m faculty. They come and ask me questions, and I have no idea what the answers are,” she jokes with a laugh.
Gracing the commencement stage during Saturday’s ceremony for the class of 2023 will be the culmination of years of hard work for 6,347 graduates and nearly 16,000 guests in Delaware Stadium.
For Duffy, the occasion is bittersweet.
“I’m going to miss all of it. I’m going to miss the young people. I love learning; I just love it. I’m sad that I finished,” she said, adding that she is grateful for the support from the university, faculty and other students.
As for the happiness that comes with graduation, Duffy is most looking forward to seeing her friends during commencement weekend and being able to spend more time with her loved ones now that she no longer has to hit the books every week.
“My friends and family are so excited that someone my age stuck it out and finished. They’re amazing. Plus, throughout these five years, I haven’t been a very good grandma, or mom or friend because I’d say, ‘I can’t go with you. I have to study,’” Duffy explained, adding that she spent most of her waking hours doing homework, writing reports or planting gardens.
No longer needing her husband to drive her to campus when she’s feeling exhausted is also a newfound perk she’ll be enjoying as a graduate.
While graduating on Saturday sounds like an early birthday present for Duffy, who turns 74 on Monday, she has other plans in store to celebrate her achievement.
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She is already planning a late-summer graduation party, set to be hosted at her home with her soon-to-be-built screened-in porch ready for all the food and mingling.
Her guest list is filled with loved ones and “everybody who has helped me in any fashion,” including UD faculty, fellow parishioners and those on the receiving end of her green thumb projects, she said.
Already retired, Duffy doesn’t plan on going back to work but will be using her new degree to do more of what she’s dreamed of her entire life: helping others and being knee-deep in plant projects.
“I’m definitely going to continue to volunteer, help organizations. That’s what I’ve been doing for years, and I intend to keep doing that,” she said.
To make sure she doesn’t miss her Blue Hen years too much, Duffy already has plans to stay involved with the school community.
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She’s on the board of the landscape architecture program, plans to keep in touch with the school’s botanic gardens team and will continue her tree-planting efforts with the university.
“I’ll still have contact with the students and all the creativity they have,” she said. “I’m still hanging on there because it’s such a wonderful place to be and I don’t want to give that up.”
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