90-year-old woman makes headlines as oldest graduate in BYU history

Oneita Sumsion, at 90 years old, poses for a picture in her graduating cap and gown in front of a BYU sign on campus. Sumsion graduated in June 2020 with a journalism degree from BYU. (Steve Bernard)

Fairview, Utah native Oneita Sumsion made history in June 2020 as BYU’s oldest-ever graduate when she received her Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the School of Communications at 90 years old. According to the Daily Herald, the previous record for the oldest graduate in BYU history was held by Fred Paulson Jr., at age 80 in 2018.

Sumsion’s journey to receiving her journalism degree had been in the making for many, many years.

“Life just happened”

In 1987, Sumsion was working as a journalist while attending BYU as a student. Sumsion said she was close to graduating when her husband told her they would be serving a mission in England. With the sudden news, Sumsion left for her mission with her husband, even though she was supposed to graduate that spring. She only had one class left to take before she could have graduated with her degree in journalism.

When Sumsion returned from her mission, she was unable to go back to BYU and graduate. Life quickly moved on.

She said she was blessed with two children and served five missions with her husband. She served in Nauvoo, the Provo MTC, the Springville Family History Center and went to England twice. She worked for many years as a journalist and editor at the Springville Herald, the Deseret News and the Daily Herald.

Love, value for education

Sarah Atkinson, Sumsion’s granddaughter, said Sumsion was always proud of her grandchildren whenever they graduated from college, as she loved and valued education.

Atkinson said Sumsion’s mother, Thelma Burnside, got married at 16 and then divorced, having to take care of three children all by herself. She could never get an education for herself, so she always encouraged her children to pursue one.

Atkinson said this instilled a great love for education in Sumsion.

Sumsion, though unable to finish her degree, was always extremely supportive of Atkinson’s educational goals when she wanted to go back to school to get her master’s degree, Atkinson said. “When I told my family I wanted to get a master’s degree, my grandma was so excited for me and was my biggest cheerleader,” she said.

While Atkinson was in her master’s program in 2019, her grandma mentioned again on a phone call that she would love to get her degree. Atkinson had grown up hearing stories about her grandma and her desire to graduate from BYU.

As Atkinson talked to her grandma, her desire to help culminated. Atkinson said after the phone call ended, she felt prompted that it was finally time for her grandma to get her degree. She called her grandma back and told her she would help her finally achieve her long-lost dream.

“Education has been so important for you and you have inspired so many of your grandkids to get an education, it’s time we pay it back to you and get this done,” Atkinson told her grandmother.

With that, they could start the process of getting Sumsion her degree.

One more class

Atkison said School of Communications academic advisor Emily Emerick helped Sumsion with the process of receiving her degree from start to finish.

Sumsion said there was one more class from the School of Communications she needed to finish. But because of her real life experience working for many years as a journalist for the Deseret News, Daily Herald and Springville Herald, the final class was waived.

With that, Sumsion finally had all the credits she needed to graduate in June of 2020. “I was thrilled. I had always been thinking about going back and graduating regularly,” she said.

When Sumsion was on BYU campus one day talking to some students, she said they looked at her in disbelief. “The kids looked at me like I was nuts; they asked me if I was graduating and I told them yes. Here I was, at 90 years old, graduating with the kids,” Sumsion said.

Receiving the degree

When Atkinson found out that her grandma finally got her degree, she was overwhelmed with emotion. “It was this wave of joy and excitement, and I just couldn’t contain my emotions and I started crying,” she said.

Oneita Sumsion, at 90 years old, poses for a picture in her graduating cap and gown in front of a BYU sign on campus. Sumsion graduated in June 2020 with a journalism degree. (Steve Bernard)

As a little girl, Atkinson said she remembered her grandma talking about giving up this dream of graduating to serve five missions and go follow her husband around the world.

Seeing her grandma receive her degree “was like Christmas came early for me,” Atkinson said.

“Sarah wanted me to walk; she wanted me to walk with all the other students at BYU, and I was ready,” Sumsion said. However, Sumsion was unable to formally walk at graduation because of COVID-19.

While there was no physical official graduating ceremony for the class of 2020, Sumsion’s family threw her a graduation party. Sumsion used her walker to help her walk to a BYU professor who came to officiate the ceremony in their home.

When asked about how she felt finally receiving her degree, Sumsion said, laughing, “I’m glad to finally have my degree hanging on my wall.”

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