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Life of reinvention continues for Saint Vincent College grad-to-be

| Thursday, May 10, 2018, 11:00 p.m.

Marcia Croce has a talent for reinvention.

The 58-year-old Blairsville woman enlisted in the Air Force after high school and began her work life as an Air Force medical lab technician in South Korea. Four years later, she moved to Harmarville with her grandmother, completed beauty school and opened her own salon in Greensburg.

Five years after that, she closed her thriving business to help her then-husband operate his medical supply business. Along the way, she became a fitness instructor and finished her first full triathlon in 2010.

Now, she is getting ready to try on yet another identity: a newly minted college graduate with a bachelor's degree in graphic design and computer science.

Croce will be among 324 students who will pick up degrees during commencement Saturday at Saint Vincent College near Latrobe.

The small Benedictine college is known for its rigorous academics. The vast majority of its undergraduates are recent high school students, including a fair sprinkling of valedictorians and salutatorians.

“I think I saw one guy in class who was older. But for the most part, I was with 18 to 22 year olds,” Croce said. “I lacked self-confidence, but they all treated me well. I think they looked at me like I was their mother. They were very respectful.”

While most of the nation's 20 million college students are 25 or younger, U.S. Department of Education statistics show more than half a million men and women older than 50 are enrolled in degree programs at colleges and universities across the country.

Croce never planned to be a student in her late 50s. She didn't plan for the curveballs life threw her way either.

When her marriage of 25 years crumbled, she found herself alone, unemployed and at odds about the future.

“I had two choices. I could stay in bed and mope around, or I could go out and better myself. And that's what I did,” she said. “I feel as though my heart was broken, but my head kept going and now my heart is catching up with my brain. Now, it's like I'm going in the right direction and moving forward.”

Over the past four years, she has worked as a fitness instructor, snared a job as a graphic designer for a college newsletter, taken out student loans, fought foreclosure and studied like mad.

Now she's looking for work and seeking freelance design jobs until she finds something permanent.

‘That's Marcia'

Mary Beth Spore, dean of Saint Vincent's School of Social Sciences, Communication and Education, got to know Croce when she hired her as graphic designer for the school's newsletter. She said Croce was typical of the older women she has known over the years who returned to college.

“They always worried about making grades and staying in school. A lot of them had low self-esteem,” Spore said. “Conversely, they were some of the best students I've ever taught. They were diligent and sincere. They were always there. They put the other undergraduates to shame. That's Marcia.

“I think Marcia has come a tremendously long way. I have so much hope and confidence that her future is terribly bright,” Spore said.

The cap and gown she will don for commencement are symbols of the accomplishments Croce's acquired along the way.

But more her style is the Saint Vincent College Class of 2018 T-shirt Croce sported Thursday while teaching an early morning Silver Sneakers fitness class at the Blairsville Community Center.

The women in her class — many in their 60s, 70s and 80s — are all cheering for Croce.

Lavina Lasser summed up their sentiments as she walked into Croce's class Thursday morning.

“She was like a mother to those students, and she's like a daughter to us,” Lasser said. “She's worked so hard. She deserves to succeed.”

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

Marcia Poliak Croce, 58, teaches a Silver Sneakers exercise class at the Blairsville Armory, in Blairsville, on Thursday, May 10, 2018. Croce will be graduating from Saint Vincent College with a B.A. in graphic design, and a minor in computer science.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Marcia Poliak Croce, 58, teaches a Silver Sneakers exercise class at the Blairsville Armory, in Blairsville, on Thursday, May 10, 2018. Croce will be graduating from Saint Vincent College with a B.A. in graphic design, and a minor in computer science.
Marcia Poliak Croce, 58, teaches a silver sneaker exercise class at the Blairsville Armory, in Blairsville, on Thursday, May 10, 2018. Croce will be graduating from Saint Vincent College with a B.A. in graphic design, and a minor in computer science.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Marcia Poliak Croce, 58, teaches a silver sneaker exercise class at the Blairsville Armory, in Blairsville, on Thursday, May 10, 2018. Croce will be graduating from Saint Vincent College with a B.A. in graphic design, and a minor in computer science.
Marcia Poliak Croce, 58, poses for a portrait after teaching a silver sneaker exercise class at the Blairsville Armory, in Blairsville, on Thursday, May 10, 2018. Croce will be graduating from Saint Vincent College with a B.A. in graphic design, and a minor in computer science.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Marcia Poliak Croce, 58, poses for a portrait after teaching a silver sneaker exercise class at the Blairsville Armory, in Blairsville, on Thursday, May 10, 2018. Croce will be graduating from Saint Vincent College with a B.A. in graphic design, and a minor in computer science.
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