Thomas Allen first went to college in 1977 to what was then called Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Almost 50 years later, he will walk across the commencement stage this weekend to receive a bachelor’s degree in International Studies with a minor in German from The University of New Mexico.

“I was just like thousands of freshmen starting their college careers, except maybe I wasn’t,” Allen said. “Over the next four years, I would change majors twice, become a co-op student, and go to uncountable career fairs and guidance sessions in search of a path.

Although Allen was succeeding academically, “the satisfaction level I felt was lacking something critical.”

In the spring of 1981, nearly four years into his studies, Allen decided to take a break to find himself and his life path. He traveled and lived in some foreign countries, got married and had two children.

“I had something of a career in the building industry, and all the while had this desire to finish my degree. For years I carried the sealed envelope containing my official transcript from Virginia Tech just in case I needed it to enroll in whatever university was close by,” he recalled. He occasionally applied to schools and offered the transcripts and was always accepted but would eventually decide the time wasn’t right but order another transcript to have ready, just in case.

“In spring of 2020, the stars, the planets, and the people in my life all aligned to create the right time,” Allen said. He lived in Taos, daughter Margaret was attending UNM in Albuquerque, COVID hit, and UNM went online.

“And the final piece? My wife Robyn decided to go back to school for her doctorate. As she did so, she looked at me and said, ‘Well?’ The challenge was thus laid down.”

Allen called UNM and happened to connect with Ian Stewart, acting director of the UNM International Studies Institute.

“He offered up a route, a plan of sorts that made it all sound completely doable. I could join his INTS 101 class as a non-degree student. I could get my feet wet without having to complete the acceptance process. If I felt it was the right fit, during the course of that first semester I could apply to UNM and by spring semester I could enroll as a full-time degree student.”

Although Allen hoped to graduate with daughter Margaret, she beat him to the punch, finishing her degree in 2021 in the thick of the COVID shutdown. 

“Her commencement was something of a non-event. It was on-line and lasted 27 minutes.”

Allen plans to thoroughly enjoy his graduation week, starting with the International Studies convocation earlier in the week and the main commencement on Saturday.

“My kids will be there at least for the commencement. I would very much like Margaret to walk across the stage with me, but I know she will be there in spirit.”

“My father has always had a great appreciation for higher education but was never able to finish his own,” said Margaret Allen, now a pediatric nurse at Brenner Children’s Hospital, in Winston Salem, NC. “He has spent the better part of the last 40 years as a general contractor and a father, making sacrifices so that my brother and I could excel in our passions and academics. When he finally decided to go back to college, we were so proud of him. Over the last few years, he has had to adapt in so many ways and open his mind to new ideas to succeed. In a culture where the older generations are often seen as stubborn and close-minded it has been inspiring to see my father continue to reach outside his comfort zone and welcome new ideas and concepts with curiosity and compassion! I am so thankful to have him as a father and so proud of what he has chosen to do.”