92 -year-old earns high school diploma at Madison College

Sarah Wells earned her diploma 76 years after leaving high school

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92-year-old Sarah Wells waves to fellow graduates and other attendees before graduating with her high school diploma Thursday, May 23, 2024, at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

After dropping out of high school when she was 16 years old, Sarah Wells told herself she would graduate eventually. 

It took more than seven decades, but she made it. The 92-year-old became the oldest person to ever receive a High School Equivalency Diploma, or HSED, from Madison College Thursday night. 

With dozens of family members in attendance, Wells sat on stage with balloons tied to her wheelchair. Her daughter helped her cross the stage, and state Rep. Shelia Stubbs read a proclamation naming her Madison College’s exemplary learner of the year.  

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“I wanted to finish school like the rest of my friends did,” Wells said. “And I still had that in my mind all those years.”

“Can you believe it? How many?” she said, turning to her daughter. 

“76,” Mary Wells said. 

“Isn’t that remarkable?” Sarah Wells said.  “Seventy six years. And here I’m 92. God is so beautiful.” 

92-year-old Sarah Wells, right, stands with her daughter, Mary, before receiving her high school diploma Thursday, May 23, 2024, at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Wells found her way back to school last year after meeting University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Sandra Adell at a memoir writing workshop from the UW Odyssey Senior program. Adell told her it was never too late to get her diploma.

“Mom was so excited after they talked. Mom told me, ‘Let’s go to Madison College right now so I can get signed up, ’cause I’m ready,’” her daughter Mary Wells said. 

Sarah Wells struggled with severe asthma in her school age years. Her family moved to Madison in 1949, and shortly after the move she left school to help her mother in her job as a cook at a sorority house on Langdon Street.  

“This selfless act just demonstrated her deep sense of responsibility and love for family,” Stubbs said at the graduation ceremony. 

Wells enrolled in the high school equivalency classes in spring of 2023. She said she enjoyed learning about the Big Bang, and named math instructor Tony Cina as her favorite teacher. 

“I think for a lot of people there’s sort of this significant wound, walking around as an adult knowing that they never completed high school,” Cina said. 

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Wells attended virtual math and science classes for four hours a day. Mary Wells helped with the technical aspects of logging in to watch the live classes.

“She was a very diligent student and really flourished and enjoyed the course,” Cina said.  

92-year-old Sarah Wells is greeted by her family and friends after receiving her high school diploma Thursday, May 23, 2024, at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

About 200 students received a General Education Development, or GED, certificate or HSED Thursday night. Academic advisor Monique Billings said GED certificates are awarded based on standardized tests, while high school equivalency requires passing courses with a grade of 80 percent or higher. 

The programs are paid for with federal and state grants, and students usually have to pay a $15 fee for their diploma, Billings said. 

The college has awarded 380 diplomas so far this year, and about 200 graduates attended the ceremony Thursday night. 

Students generally must be at least 18-1/2 years old to enroll, though some take GED tests younger and are awarded diplomas through their high schools, Billings said. Cina estimated most students are in their 20s through 40s. 

Many students enroll because they want to set an example for their own children that it’s important to finish high school, he said. 

Cina said students see high school completion as an accomplishment, even if they don’t pursue a postsecondary degree.

“There is really no doubt in my mind that she could now go for her associate degree,” Madison College President Jack Daniels III said at the ceremony. 

Wells said she wants to audit college courses in botany and learn more about the science of plants. 

“I just think that her story is a testament to hope,” Cina said. “And that’s the favorite part of my job is that this is a place where hope lives.” 

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