Duquesne University custodian quietly finishes bachelor's degree
Connie Burwell was pushing the garbage can from one office to another, as she did every day at work.
She approached a closed door. She knocked, no one answered. So she unlocked it with a master key.
But when she opened the door, there was the professor. And she was not happy. She castigated Burwell, a facilities management employee at Duquesne University, for entering without permission. She lectured with an air of superiority that left Burwell humiliated.
“I was just doing my job,” Burwell said. “I followed protocol. I knocked, nobody answered, so I went in. And she looked down on me for the job I do. That's when I said, ‘I'm not going to let people talk like this to me. I have to do something.' ”
The first thing she did was to finally take her daughter's advice.
For years, Kadia Givner listened to her mom complain about how the physical labor of her job made her hands hurt and how she wasn't satisfied. For years, Givner responded by urging her mom to finish her degree. Change isn't change until you change, Givner would say.
But Burwell was in her mid-50s. It was too late for change, she thought.
Plus, she was scared. What if she failed? What if the professors and students laughed at her?
“I asked my family, and they said, ‘You can do it!' ” Burwell recalled. “My cousin said, ‘You're smart, don't you know?' I was like, ‘Well, I'm OK.' ”
She met with guidance counselors, she said, “and they told me: ‘Fear is not bad. Good fear will push you forward.' From that point on, it was just — go!”
Every Saturday, she went.
She took full class loads alongside other, usually younger, Duquesne students. She continued working on campus — sharing small talk with academics who had no idea what she was doing — then went home to study, sometimes all night.
And after two years, she did it: At 57, Burwell earned her degree in behavioral science.
Because it's never too late, she said.
“Oh, I cried all morning,” she said Thursday, moments before walking the stage at the A.J. Palumbo Center, Uptown, during Duquesne's mid-year graduation ceremony. “Just thinking about the journey ... I can't believe this.”
Burwell continues to work in College Hall, home to dozens of accomplished professors. Excluding that one, they've always been kind to her, chatting with her as she cleans their classrooms, bathrooms and offices.
Yet, Burwell told none of them. She didn't think they would care.
She was wrong. A few weeks ago, someone in the building found out what she'd done. That someone told someone else. Word spread.
Small talk turned suddenly into long conversations about her future. Casual greetings were replaced by words of admiration.
Burwell found it flattering — and certainly surprising — but thought nothing more of it and returned to work.
Then a coworker, Ann, said she needed to move a table on the fifth floor. Connie went to help her.
Ann pointed to a door. It's right through there, she said.
“She opened that door, and they all shouted, ‘Surprise!' ” Burwell said, shaking her head at the memory. “There were like 25 professors in there — professors who were off that day but said they had to come in. I was overwhelmed. I thought they looked at me as just a person doing my job.”
During the graduation ceremony, perhaps the loudest roar was when Dean James Swindal announced: “Connie Denise Burwell. Cum laude.”
She held the diploma cover to her chest. She waved to her family. She fought back tears.
“There were times she got frustrated,” said Givner, who flew in from Maryland to be there. “But I am so proud of her. She broke her back for me for so many years. This is for her.”
Burwell hopes to get a job in mental health or drug rehabilitation services. As for the diploma:
“I'm going to hang it in my living room now — and in my office when I get one.”