By Cynthia Hubert
Debra and Charles Beckham each cultivated successful business careers. But as they climbed the corporate ladder, they harbored a “dirty little secret:”
Neither had attended college.
Upon retirement, they decided it was time. They tiptoed into the process, taking just a couple of classes in their first semester, and it took them six years to obtain their undergraduate degrees. But in the springof 2019, the couple attended commencement ceremonies together at the Golden 1 Center, graduating with honors from Sacramento State’s College of Business Administration as friends and family members cheered them on.
“It was the realization of a dream,” Charles Beckham said.
Beckham never dared to dream of attending college while growing up poor in El Paso, Texas. He was forced to drop out of high school in the 10th grade to help support his family. College never felt like an option to Debra Beckham, either. Her father died when she was 7, leaving her family in difficult straits. She graduated from high school in Southern California, but college never seemed like a realistic option. No one in either of their families had pursued higher education.
Charles and Debra met and married more than three decades ago in the Bay Area, when both had young kids and were starting their careers during the early days of the Internet. He worked in the technology field, and she was a specialist in corporate recruitment. Despite their limited academic backgrounds, both steadily advanced in their professions. They put four children through college.
But “I always felt like a little bit of a hypocrite,” said Debra Beckham, 66. “The fact that I didn’t have a college degree was not something I shared with my colleagues. It was my dirty little secret.”
Charles Beckham, 64, had similar feelings.
“I really lamented not having gone to college,” he said. “Debra and I talked about it, and we decided that if ever we had the opportunity, it would be something we would do together. Luckily, the opportunity presented itself.”
In 2013, after retiring from their jobs, the Beckhams moved to Loomis and began taking college classes.
They started at Sierra College in Rocklin, and both felt a bit out of place at first. They were back in school for the first time in decades. They had long and successful careers behind them. Most of their classmates were so young they could have been their children or grandchildren.
“In the earlier years we didn’t get picked for project teams,” Charles said.
Things changed after they transferred to the College of Business Administration at Sac State.
The couple’s employment backgrounds, and their experience working abroad in Japan and Australia among other places proved invaluable in upper-division courses such as Professor Kenichiro Chinen’s International Business class.
“How often do students get such an opportunity to have professionals as their classmates?” asked Chinen. “Students paid close attention to them because they wanted to learn how an overseas assignment would help career progression,” and how exposure to a different language and culture might add to their value as employees.
“As much as the Beckhams learned about global business in my class, I learned a lot from their experiences,” Chinen said. “They were true assets for my class and CBA.”
CBA Dean William Cordeiro said the Beckhams are shining examples of Sac State’s commitment to academic success and inclusion.
“They exemplify the dedication and perseverance of our students, from first-in-family to attend college to more experienced students returning to complete their educations,” Cordeiro said.
The couple pursued their degrees mostly “for the sake of education,” said Charles Beckham. He and Debra never intended to return to work following retirement. But the college experience was far more satisfying than they imagined, they said.
They commuted together to and from school, and almost always sat side by side in class. They discovered comfortable places at Sac State to relax, study and enjoy a cup of coffee or a bite to eat. They took advantage of academic counseling and tutoring programs. They felt like they belonged.
“Sac State is so incredibly diverse,” Charles said. “All of the different cultures and diversity that we encountered made the experience really special.”
Courses like Chinen’s and others offered “fresh, original content” and academic challenges, the couple said. Professors were engaging. But the Beckhams wanted to do more than just complete the course work. “We definitely wanted to get good grades,” Debra said.
They did: She graduated with a 3.8 overall GPA; his GPA was 3.97.
For Commencement in May, the Beckhams donned their graduation regalia and lingered in the Golden 1 Center hallways with a crowd of other CBA students, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Marching to their seats in their caps, gowns and honors cords, they waved to a large gathering of family members in the audience. “It was very emotional,” Charles said. “Really exciting. I was proud. Such good feelings.”
The secret is out now, and the Beckhams have checked off “the first item on our bucket list,” Debra said.
So what’s next?
A trip to Italy. More time with the grandkids. Continuing to do volunteer work. And enjoying a life that, as newly minted college graduates, is a little more fulfilling.
“Getting a degree from Sacramento State has helped build a huge foundation of knowledge that makes life a little bit richer,” Charles said. “I’m so grateful we were able to achieve it.”