‘Just Keep Chippin’ Away’

Go to the word “perseverance” in your dictionary. Is there a picture of Wendy Harris there? No? Well, maybe there should be.

Wendy Harris

At last May’s Wilmington University commencement, Harris received a BS in Education Studies after an eight-year academic odyssey. Along the way, she overcame sickness, divorce, the challenges of technology, financial problems, and more — all while holding down two and sometimes three jobs.

As she is the first to admit, she had plenty of help — from University staff and faculty, from her church, her employers and her family.

But in the end, it was the perseverance of this mother, grandmother and great-grandmother that carried her to the stage of the Chase Center on the Riverfront. And she earned that degree not only for herself, but for her beloved students at the Bright Horizons at Nemours Learning Development Center in North Wilmington. They are at the center of her chosen career — early childhood education.

Harris came late to that career, just as she came late to her degree. And the road proved to be a bit winding.

Born Wendy Simmons, she was raised by a single mother in Philadelphia, along with a younger sister (now a retired teacher) and an older brother who died at 2006. “My mother made sure we stayed on the straight and narrow,” Harris remembers.

She graduated from the old William Penn High School for Girls in the Spring Garden section of Philly, where she was a good student and president of the student body one year. But college was not an immediate goal back then.

Married soon after high school, she went to work for a Philadelphia bank, staying 27 years and becoming manager of customer service. Along the way, she enrolled at what was then Peirce Junior College for one course in public speaking. But, after earning those three credits, she had to drop out when her mother died in 1983 to focus on her three children. “I wanted to make sure they would pursue their education and go to college,” Harris says.

After she left the bank in 2002, she and her family moved to Smyrna, Delaware. “Remarried, relocated and retired” is the way she characterizes her life at that point. But two of those conditions failed to last. She was soon divorced and back in the workforce.

It was then that her church — she’s a devout Jehovah’s Witness — helped guide her. A member of the congregation sensed that Harris had a talent for teaching (she had been a trainer during her banking career) and suggested that she apply to become a substitute in the Smyrna School District. She had earned enough credits from the bank as a customer service manager and as a trainer to qualify, and she was hired.

At first, she worked two days a week. Then, during the divorce, she went to five days, at all grade levels and all subjects, and became one of the district’s preferred substitutes. She was so effective, in fact, that she was recruited for the Reading Training Intervention (RTI) program at Sunnyside Elementary School.

In 2009, she got her first taste of early childhood education, at the Academy of Early Learning in Smyrna. Meanwhile, she dropped out of substitute teaching but continued her RTI work and landed a weekend job at Acme, in the meat department. That’s three jobs, in case you’re counting.

At about this time, she developed a gastrointestinal problem that required surgery, followed by three months of bed rest. Her church was quick to respond during the illness, helping Harris to pay her bills and bringing hot meals to her home. “I never saw so much food in my life,” she says.

Once recovered, she found that her work at the Academy of Early Learning whetted her appetite for education, and she started looking into area colleges. She chose WilmU, and signed up for two psychology courses at the Dover campus. And promptly failed them.

It had been more than two decades since she had been in a college classroom, and much had changed. For instance, she says, “I had no idea about APA (the style guide of the American Psychological Association).” New teaching technology also proved daunting.

Her supervisor at the Academy of Early Learning stepped in then and offered to tutor Harris, who gratefully accepted.

She moved on to the Boy & Girls Club in Smyrna, then commuted to a job at Girls, Inc. in Claymont. In May of 2015, she moved to Bear and landed her current job as an assistant preschool teacher at Bright Horizons. She loves working with the kids, most of whom are children of employees at Nemours Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children and Astra Zeneca.

Meanwhile, she began having doubts about whether she was up to the challenge of working full-time and attending classes. She unburdened herself to Gary Seydell, a WilmU undergraduate academic advisor, telling him, “I just don’t know if this is going to work.”

“He told me, ‘Just keep chipping away,” says Harris. “‘Don’t worry about how old you are or how long it takes. Just keep chipping.’”

Says Seydell: “Wendy stayed focused and determined to complete her program, all while balancing family, work, and school. She stayed connected, utilized the University’s resources and pursued her dream part-time over eight years. She was even able to apply prior learning and life experience for one of her courses. She is the embodiment of Wilmington University’s mission and values.”

Taking Seydell’s advice, Harris “chipped away.” But by 2017, she was ready to settle for an associate degree. Then in a one of several meetings with Dr. James Boyd, chair, B.S. in Education, he informed her that she needed only 10 credits for her bachelor’s degree. Says Harris: “He told me, ‘You are so close, why don’t you go for it?’”

Dr. Boyd, who also helped her find financial assistance, is a big Wendy Harris fan. “When most people her age are thinking about retirement or completing careers, Wendy wanted to learn as much as she could about Early Childhood Education,” he says. “Having worked in that field for years, the truth is that she probably could have taught a number of the courses from personal experience, but she wanted that degree. She and I met several times as she moved through the program. She was particularly challenged by technology, as most people our age are from time to time, but we worked through those challenges. Instead of being afraid of it, she plowed forward.”

Indeed she did, making the dean’s list three times. Her family, who has encouraged her throughout her college years, attended commencement, and afterward they went to a restaurant on the Wilmington Riverfront to celebrate with a big dinner, topped off with a huge green-and-white cake.

And she’s not done. In September, when she marked her 67th birthday, Harris planned to start working toward her master’s degree.

“Wendy is one of those students who come along once in a while who remind us of why we are at Wilmington University,” says Dr. Boyd. “She is a model of our goal of lifelong learning.”

—Bob Yearick