Graduations are often associated with younger adults delighted that their years immersed in scholarship are now coming to an end, their lives and careers ahead of them. For older scholars, however, commencement can be the conclusion of a lifelong dream.
The latter is the case for Sheba Tartt.
At age 68, Tartt holds the distinction of being the eldest graduate among the 2023 Commencement candidates. She will be graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in African studies and a minor in African American studies with a 3.78 grade point average.
“The journey was not effortless, but it has given me understanding, strength, and respect for perseverance and its rewards,” Tartt says of her achievement. “In the words of our wonderful president Wayne A. I. Frederick, ‘Not everyone earns the privilege of calling themselves a Howard University graduate.’ It is a great privilege. This is something that I’ll have for the rest of my life.”
It doesn’t matter how long it takes to make it to the finish line.”
Born on January 6, 1955, Tartt was raised in Blackstone, Virginia, around a plethora of cultural communities. During her father’s time in the U.S. Navy, Tartt recalled friends and families from diverse backgrounds visiting their home. Her name, which means “promise” in Arabic, was inspired by a woman her father encountered during a tour of South Africa.
As she completes her studies, Tartt feels earning this degree is a full circle moment as she took coursework that “stud[ies] us as a people of African descent and African Americans.” “Introduction to Contemporary Africa,” “Literature, Film, and Society in Africa” and “African Religion and Culture” were a few of Tartt’s favorite classes. Tartt also studied the Zulu language.
“I have always admired African culture, I’ve always had it in my home,” Tartt said. “In the years in my growth as a person, I was always leaning toward that direction … I wanted to learn more, and it has been a beautiful experience.”
Tartt is a main caregiver for her grandson, Brandon, with special needs, citing him as her inspiration to strive for more educational opportunities. Tartt initially pursued a degree in nursing to take better care of him, but realized it was neither her personal calling nor necessary to give him the best care possible.
Since 2007, Tartt has been an administrative assistant for various departments and divisions within the University. Currently, she is with the College of Dentistry’s Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology and research department. As a student and administrator simultaneously, Tartt recalled distinctive moments throughout her curriculum as chances to empower her and be limitless.
"Education is a learning process, a growing process,” Tartt said. “I already had the meat and potatoes with my associate degree in business management, but Howard gave me the opportunity to explore me as a person.”
Though age is a common topic, Tartt said her experiences with classmates have been exceptional, citing their immediate acceptance of her as a fellow scholar. Experiencing the University’s unity firsthand as a student has been a memorable experience, Tartt says, despite the bulk of her studies occurring during virtual learning.
“The younger adults, they welcomed me as an individual, not as an older person, not as their grandmother, not as someone could have been their mother,” Tartt says. “We were equal as far as team players when we did team projects. It was such a beautiful experience.”
With commencement completing her undergraduate career, Tartt said she is mostly excited about returning to her everyday life. Literature and study guides are peppered throughout her living areas, and the kitchen table has become a makeshift office.
“There’s this section of my dining room that was my schooling space,” Tartt laughs. “Now when I walk in, my plants can breathe.”
It is unclear if she will continue her education as she enters her 70s but, for now, she will take a moment to revel in her newest academic achievement with Saturday’s commencement ceremony and a graduation party hosted by her family at her Washington, D.C. home.
“I am so honored,” Tartt says with tears in her eyes. “Howard empowered me. Howard made me become the person that I am. And to walk across that stage, it tells me that I’m not limited to anything.”
“After this, the best is yet to come. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to make it to the finish line.”