Fifty-two years separated the youngest and oldest graduates of the University of Richmond in 2012 Commencement Exercises. And both earned their degrees through the School of Professional & Continuing Studies.

James “Jimmy” Nickerson, 20, graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Studies in Paralegal Studies. Angelene “Angie” Pell, 72, graduated with a Master of Liberal Arts.

Although the average age of degree-seeking students in the School is 37, SPCS is accustomed to vying for the University’s oldest graduating student. The honor of youngest graduate, however, generally belongs to one of the undergraduate schools—Arts & Sciences, Business or Leadership Studies.

Some perspective highlights the rarity of this occurence. Nickerson has never known a world without e-mail or the Internet, while Pell studied biology before classes covered DNA. Nickerson has been in school since kindergarten, while Pell has worked “six or seven careers” between her undergraduate and graduate experiences. Nickerson is 17 years younger than an average SPCS student, while Pell is nearly twice as old as the average SPCS student.

And the age difference between the two is a couple of years beyond a half century.

What unites these two remarkable graduates—besides their common alma mater—is what led them to the classroom. And that commonality also highlights the multi-generational strength of an SPCS class.

Nickerson and Pell share an innate desire to make an impact on the world. Both are deeply driven and passionate in this desire. Nickerson sees himself making an impact toward social justice through the law, while Pell sees herself making an impact toward global understanding through education.

In a twist of the cycle of academic experience—and the result of the School’s deep ties to its partners in education—Nickerson started his college education studying full time at John Tyler Community College while Pell uses her master’s degree to teach history at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.

Nickerson expects to attend law school in the fall. He’s working through the School’s LSAT exam preparation program to ensure he’s prepared for enrollment. He’s considering Washington & Lee, George Mason, Georgetown, and our own University of Richmond School of Law. He wants to earn his JD and apply his study and background in the law toward litigation as an attorney, to corporate or philanthropic leadership, or to NGO leadership. “[I’d like to] understand how the law affects others socially and emotionally.”

Nickerson recognizes that the legal system has ostracized many. He is drawn to the needs of such people, focused on social and moral justice. And the School’s paralegal studies program provided exactly the background needed to apply a legal background to the day-to-day application of justice in corporations, nonprofits and law offices.

Pell is a Bryn Mawr graduate whose “six or seven careers” have included elementary teacher, ophthalmic technician and office manager for a small medical business, paralegal, wedding dress designer and maker, COO of a technology company specializing in software for financial traders and spreadsheet plugins, wooden jigsaw puzzle maker and fox hunter. As her career suggests, Pell is a lifelong learner. She also thrives in contact with younger people.

Pell values the insight of younger students and sympathizes with the plight of today’s college students. “[They] have so much to learn in any one subject” that they are unable to “place what they’re learning into perspective.”

Pell’s critique of higher education in the 21st century is its lack of context—students have so much to learn that they seldom have time to relate theory to the real world. “[I wish there were] far more coordination with what’s happening now in students’ college experience.”

Her desire to provide this context compelled Pell to return to school. She needed to earn a master’s degree to teach at the college level. Once she earned the required 18 graduate hours in a single area of study—in her case, history—she landed an adjunct position teaching at a local community college. She started teaching last spring.

It’s the unique, multigenerational SPCS classroom experience that enables a twenty-something and a seventy-something to thrive.

Nickerson realized that adult learners, whether returning to the classroom or entering for the first time, share similar characteristics such as a drive to learn or challenging schedules to juggle. “Despite the differences, I was shocked at how similar everyone is.”

Pell enjoyed the opportunity to share her personal experience and history with younger students in her classes. “What they [younger students in the class] studied, I lived through.”

Each found in their classes exactly what they needed: the acceptance of multi-generational peers, an opportunity to place learning in context and the educational foundation needed to pursue the next professional milestone. And whether the next milestone comes at age 20 or 72, the key is continuing education.