SUNY Empire State College will celebrate the class of 2021 during a virtual ceremony on Saturday, June 5, and among more than 2,500 graduates will be 83-year-old Sheldon Friedland, a Yonkers resident who says that he has now realized a “lifelong pursuit.”
A former business owner and beloved family man, Friedland will join 2,761 SUNY Empire State graduates on Saturday as he adds earning a bachelor’s degree to his long list of accomplishments.
Friedland said that the decision to pursue his degree in his 80s was to fulfill a commitment he made as a teen while taking courses at Brooklyn College.
However, shortly after he began attending classes, the Army came calling and Friedland served a tour during the Korean War. When he returned from the war, Friedland got married, started a family, and entered the workforce, sacrificing his college education to provide.
“I never abandoned my dream of earning a college degree,” Friedland said. “Over the years, despite the time-consuming responsibilities of supporting a family and running a business, I took museum and college courses and created works of art, some award-winning.
“At the age of 83 and fully retired, I decided I wanted to join my wife, children, and grandchildren as a college graduate.”
Friedland - who is graduating summa cum laude - earned his degree in the arts, which he said was particularly poignant because two of his four grandchildren also earned their degrees this year at DePaul University.
“Twenty-two years ago, when they were born, who could have imagined this happy alignment of events?” Friedland mused. “Now Daniel, Matthew, and I join their parents, sisters, uncle, and my wife as the proud recipients of college degrees, and we add to our family’s legacy of learning.”
Betty Wilde-Biasiny, a visual arts professor at SUNY Empire State and one of Friedland’s mentors, noted that the 83-year-old came in with a good foundation, coming into college with 12 credits for previous life experience in stone carving.
“His many years of taking workshops, establishing his own studio practice, and frequent exhibitions resulted in this wonderful achievement and recognition for his life's work, in addition to earning his bachelor's degree," Wilde-Biasiny said. "He tried many new things at SUNY Empire as well, and developed a newfound passion for watercolor.”
The SUNY Empire class of 2021 had graduates as young as 20 as well as more than 200 graduating students are over age 50, and more than 150 are under age 25. Graduates collectively live in 60 different New York state counties, in 23 states and territories, and in 20 countries around the world.
“Being a busy adult learner with responsibilities at home, at work, and in the community is a test of strength and spirit in the best of times,” SUNY Empire State College officer in charge Nathan Gonyea said. “The fact that this year’s graduates persisted in their education — through all of the chaos and disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic — demonstrates their grit, resilience, and determination to pursue personal and professional goals no matter what life throws their way”
“If they can summon the willpower and fortitude to complete their degree during a global pandemic, they can do anything they put their mind to.”
Friedland, the oldest graduate at 83, said he has no professional expectations as the result of earning his degree, but he hopes to combine his newfound knowledge with the credibility of a college degree to volunteer his services to arts organizations and impart his love of art to others.
“This is the culmination of a lifelong pursuit,” Friedland said. “I’m gleeful. I’m walking on air.”
Click here to sign up for Daily Voice's free daily emails and news alerts.