By Julie Kayzerman
Photos by Brian Lewis
May 19, 2021 — When Lois Smart was forced to drop out of high school at age 17 to care for her newborn daughter, she made a promise to her grandmother.
“I promised my grandmother that whenever in life I had the opportunity, I was going to go back to school and get my degree,” says Smart, the beloved administrative assistant to the dean of students at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Metropolitan Campus.
Smart held true to that promise — graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from FDU at the University’s 78th Commencement ceremony on Wednesday, May 19.
The moment was made all the more special as Smart graduated alongside her youngest daughter, Brenye Burr, who also earned a Bachelor of Arts, with cum laude honors.
“The opportunity to walk with my baby is the biggest thing,” Smart says. “I feel like this is a big full circle.”
Smart began taking classes while working at FDU full-time, and after earning her associate’s degree in 2015, she decided to plan out the rest of her bachelor’s degree path to line up with Burr’s, so the two could cross the big stage together. “It means a lot to me,” says Burr.
For Burr, having her mother studying in the next room for the past four years has been a constant source of motivation during stressful times.
“She always gets [her work] done on time, and it really inspired me to continue to stay focused on my material and not get distracted,” Burr says.
The two have been each other’s support system — holding each other accountable on due dates, reminding one another to take mental health breaks and peer-editing each other’s papers.
But no matter how difficult it was for Smart to balance a full-time job with classes or for Burr to go through the regular ups and downs of a semester, giving up was never an option for either of them.
“My grandmother used to always tell me, ‘I can’t is not in your vocabulary.’ You never give up. Don’t even use that word,” Smart says. “That’s what she always used to tell me, and that’s what I tell all my kids. Live your best life, dream big, and never give up. You can do anything you want to do.”
That’s also the message Smart gives to her “kids” at FDU. As a member of the University staff since 2005, Smart has developed close-knit relationships with the students who have crossed her path. “I can’t even tell you the number of students I’m still in contact with over the years — they’re part of my life, I’m part of their life, and it’s been a good journey,” she says.
Meanwhile, Burr immersed herself as a Knight, getting involved in student life as an orientation leader. Now, she’s looking to use her criminal justice degree and social justice advocacy minor to pursue a career as a police officer.
The mother and daughter duo stuck together through the entire graduation process, too —declaring for graduation, taking regalia photos and decorating their caps together.
“I always say it was meant to be,” says Smart. “My degree is dedicated to my grandmother.”