The road to graduation is not always a straight one. Forty two years after first enrolling at the University of New Mexico, Jean Ellen Whatley finally received her bachelor’s degree in journalism this spring. The comeback kid had started and stopped her education numerous times over the years because, as the saying goes, life is what happens while we’re busy making plans.

Whatley came to UNM right out of Valley High School in 1973 and thus began her academic life which she describes as “years of fits and starts.” She attended UNM until marriage to a Navy man at age 20 necessitated a move to Florida and eventually Virginia. Once settled, she enrolled at Old Dominion University, working on an English degree. Fast forward three years. Whatley returned to New Mexico with a two-week-old baby when her husband was assigned to Midway Island. Mother and baby could not go.

“That was a difficult time for us,” Whatley said, without going into detail. “Suffice it to say, the marriage didn’t work out. At 26, I was now a single mom with a three year old to support. I knew I needed to go back to college.”

Whatley returned to UNM and declared journalism as her major. She took a full course load, alternating between waitressing jobs and part-time work at KOB TV, running a studio camera. She also interned in the newsroom.

“The news director liked my work but said I was kind of old to be getting started in the TV news business," Whatley said. "I was only 27. He said I’d have to go to a smaller market to start my career. I thought, ‘Say what?’ and took my demo reel containing three stories on it to KOAT and got hired on the spot.”

By 1983, Whatley was head long in her chosen field, but still needing just one science class to get her degree. “The classes were only offered on a weekday, plus a lab. I couldn’t take off work to take that one class. I know it sounds ridiculous, but that’s how it was. And then I got married again, had three more kids inside five years. I was on the air all the time. Pretty soon I’m 34, working as a full time journalist; and I’m a wife and mother of four. Where was the time to go back to school?”

Four nagging credits
Whatley left New Mexico again in 1991, with stops in Washington D.C., Winston-Salem, N.C. and ultimately landed in St. Louis, where she became a news anchor with the ABC affiliate KDNL. “It was great to sit behind a news desk after being on the streets as a reporter for 14 years,” Whatley said. “It was a good gig.”

As the years progressed, Whatley felt guilty about not finishing her degree over a mere four credits.

“Work responsibilities, transfers across the country, divorce number two, the rigors of single  parenting and college costs for four kids – all conspired to work against me getting back in the classroom…for one science class,” Whatley said, somewhat exasperated. “But after many starts and stops over the years, I was determined to finish what I’d started.  So I enrolled in a geology course at St. Louis Community College last January.”

“My New Mexico roots run deep,” Whatley said. “I love the land, the people, the history, the culture. I grew up in the North Valley. UNM was the doorway through which the larger world first opened up to me.” 

The time is right
The next order of business for Whatley was calling UNM and getting the last four credits applied to her B.A. After a few attempts at reaching the right department, she finally connected with the UNM Graduation Project and project assistant, Cathy Chavez.

“When Jean explained her situation, I knew there had to be something that I could do to help,” Chavez said. “She had correspondence from then, Vice Dean of Academic Student Affairs, J.E. White dated 1989. I reached out to the College of Arts & Sciences (A&S) and was given the green light to let Jean know if she completed the last four hours of a Physical Science course in St. Louis, she would be granted a degree from UNM.”

Chavez added that she and Julie Bustamante, coordinator of Student Advisement in A&S, worked with Whatley for eight months to ensure that she fulfill her goal of graduating from UNM.

"In this ever changing and wonderful world of technology, sometimes we just need a person who will listen to our story,” Chavez said. “This is the beauty of the Graduation Project, we have the luxury of actually speaking to our students." 

Whatley's dog, Libby, accompanied her on a road trip cross country.

Graduation day arrives
In 2012, Whatley published her first book titled, “Off the Leash,” a memoir about a woman who walks away from her life and travels around the country with her dog, to reconnect with every single person and place she had ever loved. It was a healing journey for a woman who had lost her mother and two brothers inside a few short years.

Whatley will begin graduate school in the fall, she’s hoping to get an MFA in Writing. Meantime, she’s working on a novel which takes place largely in New Mexico.

“My New Mexico roots run deep,” Whatley said. “I love the land, the people, the history, the culture. I grew up in the North Valley. UNM was the doorway through which the larger world first opened up to me.”

Whatley said that she got a great education at UNM. “I had amazing professors, Tony Hillerman, are you kidding me? Fred Harris, who was fabulous, was one of my political science professors. My favorite journalism professor was Charles Coates. He’s the one who told me to go into television.”  

During the commencement ceremony, which Whatley described as “deeply moving,” she thought about all the people who’d helped her get to graduation day. “I felt so grateful to be a part of that ceremony. I felt a deep sense of pride, not so much for my efforts, but for being part of a wonderful institution with an amazing legacy.

President Frank said in his commencement speech, ‘No one can take this away from you.’ That really resonated with me. I finally have my degree and it feels so good. And I came home to get it, to my school. I started here and I finished here. I’m a Lobo for life.”