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SRU graduate, 64, finishes degree he started 47 years ago

Joe Coudriet completed his degree and walked in Slippery Rock University’s spring commencement ceremony after he readmitted to the university in December 2023 to finish a degree he started in 1977. Slippery Rock University/Submitted photo

Wearing his cap and gown at Slippery Rock University’s commencement ceremony, Joe Coudriet said something many college graduates have said upon earning their degree: “It doesn’t matter how you start; it’s how you finish that counts.”

Upon looking at his gray beard and transcript that includes credits earned in 1977, perhaps Coudriet could have said “when” instead of “how.”

“While God saw to it that not having a degree didn’t hurt me, there was always an emptiness,” said Coudriet, 64, who is a church pastor in Vestal, N.Y., after leaving a career in real estate development in 1994. “I could have gotten my degree from any number of institutions, but I’ve never wanted a degree from anywhere else but Slippery Rock. My heart was always in Slippery Rock.”

Until he graduated May 4 with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, Coudriet was among the 40 million people in the country who earned some college credits but not a degree. Rarer is how many years have elapsed between Coudriet's last credit earned in the spring of 1982 and when he readmitted at SRU in December 2023.

Coudriet is an example that underscores a new “Finish What You Started” campaign by SRU to reach the hundreds of former students who previously withdrew from university studies and encourage them to readmit. In many cases these individuals are only a few credits short of a degree and they can complete their degree online. In other cases, they may already have enough credits to graduate in a different program, without needing additional coursework.

After SRU admissions counselors conducted an audit, Coudriet discovered he needed just one class to earn a degree through an online liberal arts program. He took a leadership course during the winter session to fulfill that final requirement.

“Everybody’s reasoning is going to be different, but people are living longer and having second and third careers nowadays,” Coudriet said. “Anything we can do to broaden our knowledge and understand people and systems in this smaller world that we now live in, it really necessitates a broader understanding of what's out there.

“For someone my age, this is an opportunity to keep the brain working, which they say from a health standpoint is good for you, but more than that, (getting a degree) prepares you for how you can give back. I want to retire eventually but I never want to stop working.”

A native of Endicott, N.Y., Coudriet came to SRU in fall of 1977 wanting to play football and become a physical education teacher. Then he met his future wife, Dawn, whom he met on a blind date. She had come to campus from her home in Amherst, N.Y., to visit her sister, Cindy, an SRU student.

“I was smitten and became a lot less interested in football and a lot more interested in her,” Coudriet said. “But I also had other interests that started to captivate me.”

Coudriet changed majors to communications, joined the Phi Sigma Epsilon fraternity and the Student Government Association, becoming class president by his junior year. He left campus in fall of 1980 to complete an internship in upstate New York. While away from SRU, he married Dawn. They had their first child in 1981 and Dawn moved to Slippery Rock shortly after.

“By then, I couldn’t finish school,” said Coudriet, who took a job as a recreation director at a campground in Mercer County and became its manager. “I was trying to work to keep food on the table. We had an apartment and I had a job that soon became very time-consuming. Even though I was carrying a full credit load at the time, I ended up having to leave school. Life went on.”

The couple moved to St. Louis, where Dawn's parents had gone for a career move. Coudriet was hired by a company that developed and managed apartment complexes and he eventually became a real estate acquisition specialist for QuikTrip, a large convenience store company.

He and Dawn moved back to New York in 1991. Coudriet remained in real estate acquisition with Amerada Hess, but shortly thereafter he answered a call to join the ministry. He was director of ministry outreach and development at Abundant Life Christian Center in Syracuse before becoming a founding pastor at Family Life Church in Coudriet’s hometown of Vestal where he remains a senior pastor.

Unfortunately, Dawn was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer in late 2022 and died in March 2023, leaving behind five children and 13 grandchildren — and a husband of more than 43 years. Grieving his wife’s passing, Coudriet began to think about college and, of course, Slippery Rock.

“I began to think, ‘Gee, I wonder what it would take to finish my degree,’ so I looked into it,” Coudriet said. “I’ve got 13 grandkids and the first one is going to college this fall, so there was this sense of incompletion. Plus, this is where I met my wife and where a big part of our life happened. I felt like there was an open end there.”

“The campus is certainly larger than when I was here before, and the world’s gotten more complicated, but I still have the same personal experience that made me love this place 43 years ago.”

Justin Zackal is a communication specialist with Slippery Rock University.

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