December 11, 2017

Joyce FisherAt 53 years old, Joyce Singer thought her life had pretty much settled down, but one conversation with her mother changed everything.

“I signed up for State Fair on one condition,” Singer remembers. “I said, ‘I’ll make you a deal, Mom. I’ll go if it’s what makes you happy, if it’s what you want me to do, but you have to promise me that you’ll live to see me graduate.’ My mom said, ‘You graduate, and I’ll be there.’ Sure enough, last May, they wheeled her in; she was there for my graduation.”

At the time, Singer was about to become an empty nester. Her youngest son was filling out the FAFSA for the upcoming school year and her mother, who had come to live with them while battling throat cancer, was dying. Joyce filled out her own FAFSA on a whim, but the joke suddenly became real when, after a just a few hours, her application had been approved. At a crossroads, Joyce went to her mother, who still had advice to give even after cancer had taken her voice.

“I said, ‘Mom, what do I do? I always wanted to go to college. Instead, I had children. Now I have a chance, but I’m old. It’s either the smartest or the stupidest thing I’ve ever done,’” Singer remembers. “She looked at me and she mouthed the words, ‘It’s the smartest thing.’”

For many nontraditional students, going back to school is a daunting prospect. In many ways, they may feel they’ve forfeited an education for a family.

“I wound up getting married straight out of high school, which I think broke [my mother’s] heart,” Singer says. “She loves all her grandchildren, but she wanted me to go to college; she wanted me to be able to live up to my potential.”

Even with the last of her four sons leaving home, Singer wasn’t convinced she’d be able to re-acclimate to school, but her sister, a State Fair grad herself, sealed the deal.

“‘Joyce, if not now, when? If you don’t do it now, you’re never going to do it,’” Singer remembers her sister telling her. “And that’s what solidified the whole thing.”

Encouraging words didn’t make the transition any easier though.

“When I first walked into the State Fair campus on Osage Beach, I just knew everybody was staring at me. There are all these 18-, 19-year-old kids, and I looked the part of the tourist!” Singer recalls.

Over time, Singer says she surprised herself by making friends in her classes, both with students over 30 years younger than her and other nontraditional students coming back to school later in life.

The wide range of ages added a diverse mix of experiences to class discussions, which Singer says worked perfectly with State Fair’s practical, “real world” teaching style. One instructor in particular, Diana Finley, had a huge impact on Singer and her career.

“She knows marketing; she knows sales; she lives it,” Singer says of Finley. “You learn so much more when someone isn’t just teaching out of a book. They know what they’re talking about.”

Now Singer is getting plenty of real-world experience herself, running and marketing her own small business, Purse-Suit Designs, whose custom handbags have carved out a stylish place on Facebook.

“State Fair changed everything for the company,” Singer says. “State Fair took me from making a purse once in a while, selling them once in a blue moon, to now I’m mass producing them. I’ve sent purses to London, England, and Canada, and just two days ago, I sold a purse to a missionary going to Haiti. So one of my purses is going to Haiti. All of that has happened since I learned how to run my business.”

Now that Singer is marketing her own business, as well as her husband’s and several of their friends, the hard work and dedication are paying off. However, in the beginning, it was a risk. Starting a career from scratch instead of seeking temporary employment was a logistical and financial puzzle, but Singer and her husband have solved it together.

“It’s been a strain on him, but he’s been very supportive,” Singer says of her husband, who encouraged her to go on after graduation to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Central Methodist University.

From her mother and sister’s initial push, to her husband and sons’ standing beside her, Singer’s education has been a family-made endeavor.

“My sons have all been very supportive,” she says. They help out with Grandma so I can get my work done, but the one that impresses me the most, and means the most, is my oldest grandson. He’s 19 and he brags to all of his friends about his grandma being in college. If I didn’t do it for any other reason than to be a good role model for my children and grandchildren, it was enough.”

Story by Jackson Ingram
Summer 2017 Communications Intern
Marketing and Communications

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