‘I haven’t really had a proper weekend in a long time’

A collection of stories covering Harvard University’s 373rd Commencement.

Harvard Commencement has long been an important day for Katarzyna Hanley. Over the decade that she worked in the Registrar’s office at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, she had essential responsibilities to ensure the event went off without a hitch, such as maintaining the official list of graduates, and ordering and preparing the diplomas.

Next week, Commencement will once again be an important day for her, but for a very different reason. Hanley, who goes by Kathy, will finally receive a Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree from Harvard Extension School 13 years after she started.

“I can’t wait. It’s a celebration of a lot of years of commitment, so yes, I’m very much looking forward to it,” said Hanley, 45. “I feel like I’ve been a student for so long, I’m not sure what life after being a student looks like, but I think it’s great. I’m ready to be done.”  

She pursued a bachelor’s degree taking one course per semester while working full-time at Harvard, first in the Registrar’s office and now as a graduate program coordinator in the Department of Romance Languages & Literatures at FAS, where she provides support for 50-60 graduate students, making sure things run smoothly so they can focus on learning and teaching.

Hanley, who came to the U.S. from Poland when she was 12, had an associate degree from MassBay Community College and was employed for a time as a branch operations manager at a local banking chain, then processed paperwork at a medical records firm. None of it felt fulfilling.

“I just felt like I needed to find a career,” she said about applying to Harvard. “I wanted to get in at the ground level at Harvard University and see where that would take me.”

“I knew it was going to be a long road ahead and I just kept taking courses, just nose to the grindstone, and kept going.”

Hanley joined the FAS Registrar’s office, keeping student records up to date, ensuring University diplomas were printed correctly, and providing administrative support for the graduate program coordinators at various Schools.

Though not required to do her job, Hanley started to feel that a bachelor’s degree was the “bare minimum” she should have working at an institution of higher learning like Harvard, where everyone seemed to already have a college degree or be working toward one. So she began looking into offerings on campus with an eye toward perhaps one day getting a bachelor’s degree.

She attended an open house at Sanders Theatre where Davíd Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America and professor of Anthropology at FAS, spoke movingly about Harvard Extension, its students, and the importance of education.

Hanley took her first course in 2011, where her routine involved getting up at 4:30 a.m. to do some reading for class before putting in a full workday on campus and doing “a lot” of coursework on weekends. “I haven’t really had a proper weekend in a long time,” she said.

She credits the Extension School’s robust online learning program with making a difficult work/school/life balance feasible. “The flexibility has made it possible for me to get a degree.”

Hanley wasn’t always confident she’d reach this milestone. Five years ago, she couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and wasn’t sure she could continue.

“I contemplated stopping the program just because it was so much work all the time,” she said of juggling her home life with work, commuting three hours a day roundtrip from Billerica to campus, keeping up with schoolwork, and planning for the next semester. “It was just too much.”

Though overwhelmed at times, Hanley wasn’t ready to bail. “I also felt that I’ve already invested so much time into it, it would be a shame to just throw it away,” she said. With the help of an academic adviser, Sarah Anne Stinnett, she reviewed her progress toward fulfilling the degree requirements and put together a game plan.

“She is amazing,” Hanley said of Stinnett. “She sat down with me and we kind of parsed out what else needed to be done, the options that I could explore, like taking some exams to offset some of the credits, transfer credits. She has led me through the last three to four years and how I could get that accomplished.” Stinnett’s guidance “was critical for me to finish the degree.”

With the path suddenly clear, Hanley put her head down and pushed ahead. “I knew it was going to be a long road ahead and I just kept taking courses, just nose to the grindstone, and kept going,” she said.

Fittingly, Hanley said, she is closing out her time as a student this semester with a course taught by Carrasco, the person who first inspired her academic journey, called “Quests for Wisdom.”

“Wisdom has a lot of definitions,” she said. “And I think to finish my career as a student with a quest for wisdom, where the course itself asks you to find your own ways toward wisdom, I think is just — cosmic design.”

Hanley is thrilled to finally be able to join in the Commencement festivities, this time wearing a cap and gown.

“For a long time, I found it almost embarrassing that it has taken me this long,” said Hanley, who took a couple of brief breaks over the 13 years. She advises other staff contemplating going back to school to just make the leap.

“Life happens, things will happen. So, I think if you want something, just do it. Commit to it, and just be persistent and do it.”

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