Jessica Starr, left, and her mother, Sarah Starr, share a laugh after walking the stage during the University of South Florida's fall 2023 commencement ceremony on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023 at the Yuengling Center in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

When University of South Florida students Sarah and Jessica Starr walked across the commencement stage in early December, a dream decades in the making came to fruition.

Sarah, now 54, had gone straight into the workforce after graduating from high school in England.

“I didn’t have the confidence that I could go to university,” she recalled. After that, she got married, had kids and moved to the United States.

Over time, she said, “I sort of became more aware of my own abilities. But then life had taken over. And so it was something that I thought about year after year after year, and then also made excuses to not do it.”

Jessica, her daughter, remembered her mother advising her to go to college and telling her how much she lamented her own decision after high school. The family had moved to Tampa in 2001 and then to St. Augustine before moving back to Tampa in 2013.

Sarah took a course to get certified in medical assistance and thought it would satisfy her hunger. It didn’t.

She said she felt intellectually on par with her husband, an engineer with a doctorate, but didn’t have a degree to show for it.

Yet the thought of college scared her.

“Eventually, I realized that I was just having the same thoughts over and over every year … and I thought, ‘Well, the only way I’m going to stop these thoughts is to actually have a go and actually try and see how I do.’”

Biology had always been her favorite subject in school, and for eight years she had worked at Advent Health monitoring patients’ cardiac rhythms. In fall 2018, she enrolled at Hillsborough Community College to study health sciences.

Meanwhile, Jessica had started at USF that January. She, too, had worked for a time after high school before beginning her studies at HCC. Her father had always told her she’d make a good engineer.

“‘I was always like, ‘No,’” Jessica said.

But when she decided to pursue careers that involved math, she realized it wasn’t a bad idea after all.

Sarah took a measured approach at HCC. “The first semester I thought I just need to try, you know, to see how things go,” she said.

It had been more than 30 years since she’d set foot in a classroom. Algebra felt like learning a new language. And at first it felt funny spending hours on something besides work and housework.

But anytime a quiz or exam went well, she felt a swell of excitement that kept her motivated.

‘I’m not going to let this beat me,’ Sarah remembered thinking.

“After the first semester, I realized that ‘OK, I can do this,’” she said. “I just figured I would do the associate’s degree, and I’ll be happy with that. That will be enough. But then I realized as soon as I finished that oh no, I’m not done yet.”

She went on to USF, joining her daughter.

Jessica, 28, said experiencing a parallel college journey with her mother helped solidify their bond.

The USF Tampa campus was midway between where the two lived, in Lutz and Sefner, and they would often meet for lunch at the Marshall Student Center. Jessica said she sometimes asked classmates if they wanted to join her, and though they often declined, they thought it was cool she and her mom shared a college experience.

Jessica has started work at an engineering firm in Tampa where she interned.

“It’s something that I almost didn’t believe that I was going to do,” she said about completing her engineering degree. “Even when I started doing it, I was like, we’ll try but we’ll see what happens. And then just being able to actually do it and say that I did, it is really exciting for me.”

With her USF degree inbiology, Sarah is about to move into a supervisory role at Advent Health. She hopes to one day coordinate clinical trials for research.

“If anyone’s considering going back to school, then I’d say go for it,” she said. ”It’s never too late. If it’s something you really want to do then you’ll be able to do it. Just do it.”

Divya Kumar is a higher education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.