At age 17, Bernadine Franks made a vow to her mother: She would one day graduate from college. Fifty years later, she has made good on that pledge, earning a degree in social work from the University of Iowa.
Lee Hermiston
Tim Schoon

Earning a degree in social work from the University of Iowa means much more to Bernadine Franks than simply fulfilling a lifelong dream.

Bernadine Franks

Degree: Bachelor’s degree in social work

Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri (but has lived in Iowa City since 1991)

Plans after graduation: Franks will work as a family liaison at Faith Academy, a Christian school in Iowa City

Fun fact: Franks likes to roller skate and still goes skating at area roller-skating rinks.

“It means respect,” says Franks, 67, of Iowa City. “It means showing others that if you work hard and if you believe in what you’re doing, you can achieve it. It means a different way of life. I’m still working and can obtain not just a job, but a good job, after I’ve retired. Regardless of my age, a degree from the University of Iowa carries a lot of weight.”

It also means keeping a 50-year-old promise.

Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Franks had her first child when she was 15 and was married at 16. When she was 17, she promised her mother that she would one day graduate from college. 

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Bernadine Franks tells her story on NBC’s TODAY show. WATCH NOW >>

It wasn’t easy, though. The road to honoring that agreement was littered with what Franks describes as “broken dreams, broken spirits, and broken hearts of my loved ones.” She struggled with addiction, but proudly states she is now celebrating 25 years of sobriety.

While living in St. Louis, Franks was a bus driver for Bi-State Transit. But she knew she didn’t want to do that for the rest of her life. In 1991, she moved to Iowa City and later obtained her counselor’s certificate from the now-closed Marycrest International University in Davenport, Iowa. She then worked as a residential addiction counselor at Prelude Behavioral Services in Iowa City and later worked as manager of Chemical Dependency Services at Unity Point-St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 

In 2012, Franks retired from St. Luke’s. 

“After that, I was thinking, ‘I still don’t have that piece of paper,’” Franks says, referring to a college diploma. “’That promise is still hanging out there. What do I do now?’”

In 2015, Franks enrolled at the UI, one of 45 students admitted into the School of Social Work’s program. Kate Kemp, program administrator for the school, says when Franks applied, school officials looked at what she had already accomplished in her career and questioned whether she needed a degree.

“But she convinced us,” Kemp says. “We were pretty sure she was going to do it if she said she was going to do it. She sets an example. She also sets an example for her family and the other people in her sphere. She really inspires us to persevere for what we believe in and open ourselves to new learning.”

Franks says she experienced a bit of a culture shock when she first arrived on campus. She was carrying a notebook and pencil; her fellow classmates had laptops. She had to learn how to upload her assignments online. And not only was Franks older than her classmates, she was older than some of her instructors.

“It means respect, it means showing others that if you work hard and if you believe in what you’re doing, you can achieve it. Regardless of my age, a degree from the University of Iowa carries a lot of weight.”

Bernadine Franks
receiving her bachelor's degree in social work

But, Franks says, she was embraced by everyone at the UI.

“My classmates were really awesome,” she says. “They never treated me differently than any other classmate. Everybody was willing to help, especially with computer things.”

Kemp—who was Franks’s academic advisor—says when some nontraditional students return to school, they can be a little jaded about the requirements they have to complete, such as general education classes.

“She was never like that,” Kemp says. “She really embraced the whole process. I was so impressed with her resilience, her determination, and her optimism.”

Scholarship fund honors Bernadine Franks

The Bernadine Franks Scholarship has been established to support a scholarship for a non-traditional, underrepresented student in the University of Iowa School of Social Work. LEARN MORE >>

When Franks is handed her diploma, she’ll be cheered on by a sizable crowd, including her three grown children; six grandchildren; students from the Faith Academy where she completed her practicum, does community outreach, and drives a van; people from Gospel Explosion Ministries church, where she is an ordained minister; and other family and friends. While her children and grandchildren have attended college—Franks and her oldest granddaughter overlapped at the UI for a year—Franks is the first of her siblings to earn a degree. She says she sees herself as an example.

“Especially when you always hear people say, ‘You’re never too old to learn,’ and then you find somebody who is 67 years old and actually took that to heart,” she says.

Beginning in January, Franks will transition to her new role as family liaison at Faith Academy, a Christian school in Iowa City. There, she’ll work with children and parents to help students achieve success in school and at home. Franks says she wanted to stay in Iowa, where she has forged many connections and is surrounded by family and friends.

“It’s home,” she says.

Speaking of home, that’s where Franks says she’ll hang her diploma. It will be a reminder of the promise she made to her mother 50 years ago and the road she traveled to fulfill it. Though her mother died in 2000, Franks says she can imagine how she would feel today.

“She’d be so proud,” she says. “But then, I guess I’m proud too. I’m proud to be a Hawkeye.” 

Get to know the University of Iowa’s fall 2018 graduates.