If you’re looking for synonyms for “perseverance,” we’d recommend adding Deborah Hegle Vaughn’s name to that list.

Vaughn graduated from Missouri Southern on Saturday with a degree in general studies and a minor in art. Earning a bachelor’s degree is an achievement, to be sure, but her journey from starting her first class to walking across the stage in the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center involved several starts and stops … over a period of 32 years.

Surrounded by her family on Saturday after the ceremony, Vaughn said that despite any setbacks, she still had a desire to learn.

“I started at Missouri Southern in 1989, when my daughter was about 9 months old,” she said, nodding to her adult daughter who stood beside her. “I got a diagnosis that she might not live to be 2, so I quit school. I was gone for almost 20 years.”

When the time was right and the opportunity presented itself, she came back to continue working on her degree.

“I had cancer and had to have surgery, but I came back again after that,” Vaughn said. “Then I put my back out and was in a wheelchair for 10 weeks, so I had to quit that semester, too.”

Coming back to school for one last push, she completed her degree in the spring of 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on her plans to attend a commencement ceremony and celebrate.

“I graduated and turned 65 last year, and retired from working with special needs adults,” she said on Saturday. “This was my commencement.”

But even after 32 years, her journey at Missouri Southern isn’t over.

“Now I qualify for the 65+ program, so I plan on coming back to take more art classes,” said Vaughn. “It means having friends and continuing to learn.”