Getting an Education—No Matter the Age, Barriers

Melinda Spitzer photo

By Monica Sager

Melinda Spitzer (ΦBK, Florida International University) proved that it’s never too late to achieve your dreams or gain an education. At age 65, Spitzer graduated from Florida International University with a Bachelor of Arts in women’s and gender studies.

Spitzer, who is a first-generation college graduate, began her college journey when she was 18. 

“My mom did not want me to go to college,” Spitzer said, adding that in the 60s for a student to go to high school they had the options of taking an academic track, in preparation for college; a commercial track for business; or a general education track, which was meant for people “who couldn’t cut the other two.”

Spitzer’s older sister took the commercial track, and her mother insisted Spitzer do the same. Spitzer, though, wanted to go to college, and she had to convince her mother otherwise.

She went on to Lehman College (which used to be the Bronx branch of Hunter College) and was going to be a Spanish major in hopes of teaching the language one day. However, she couldn’t take an exam to see where she placed, and she was required to major in another language, while also fulfilling her core curriculum courses prior to starting both.

“I quit college completely, and I hitchhiked around the country and had a blast,” Spitzer said, adding how frustrating the experience originally was.

Spitzer’s father built and repaired x-ray equipment and eventually worked as an x-ray technologist. So Spitzer was admitted to the New York Hospital, Cornell University program to become a licensed x-ray technology in 1975, after two years.

“I did that, but I still had the desire to graduate from college,” Spitzer said. “I just wanted a degree. I just wanted to finish school.”

Spitzer worked taking x-rays during the day and took classes in the evening. She received an associate’s degree in radiologic technology from Miami-Dade Community College with highest honors.

At 53-years-old, Spitzer was diagnosed with the same spinal disease her father had, which causes temporary paralysis. She has since undergone numerous spinal operations, including ones that put metal plates, spacers, and wires in her vertebrae. Her condition, however, required her to retire from her previous position as a senior technologist of mammography at Mercy Hospital.

“The turning of my neck and body would be just too much,” Spitzer said. “(My wife) though has a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation and counseling, so she knows every possible aspect of the ADA, every single law that is associated with adults with disabilities.”  

Spitzer’s wife informed her that the State of Florida would pay for her education since the law states that in the professional world, they cannot force a person to take a job without re-educating them in some fashion so that they can make the same amount of money as in the job they had to leave. So Spitzer decided to go back to school.

“They had an office right in the hospital where I had all of my surgery,” Spitzer said. “When she was able to wheel me out of my bed in my body armor, she wheeled me down there and signed me up.”

Spitzer decided to pursue her true dream of combining her mammography experiences with her passion for women’s issues.

“I worked for 37 years doing x-rays,” Spitzer said. “I wanted to study what I wanted to study at this point.”

Through Spitzer’s adult life, she had been heavily involved in both the lesbian and feminist movements. She participated in numerous protests following the Stonewall Riots, a series of demonstrations by the LGBTQ community in response to a violent police raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Starting at age 17, Spitzer also volunteered at the historic “Lesbian Switchboard,” which was a peer-run hotline in New York.

“I worked to create the change,” Spitzer said. “We got really sick and tired of trying to work with the men. We were feminists. We called ourselves ‘Fesbian Leminists’ because it was impossible for us to separate the two. We started consciousness raising groups.”

Spitzer said that the liberal arts education provided her with a deeper understanding of not only the sections of history she was a part of but also the things she did not understand previously.

“There were feminist writers in the 1500s published. Hardly any women were published, but they were,” Spitzer said. “The witches that were burned in Salem were the leaders of the feminist movement, and I studied some of them and thought about how if I thought it was bad now.”

Spitzer also said that the more she learned the more she became aware and involved of other movements in hopes of helping to create equality and justice for all.

While Spitzer’s surgeon limited her to taking one class per semester without any summer classes, she worked continuously for 12 years to graduate summa cum laude. Spitzer also was nominated by her professor, Yesim Darici, for The Real Triumphs Award, which is given to individuals at FIU who accomplished “extraordinary things during their time at the university—often against great odds.”

“I just could not believe that this was happening to me. I am so proud to be a Panther, and I am so proud to be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa,” Spitzer said. “You may have to circumvent a little bit, and you may have to postpone, and you may have to do it from home or from a wheelchair, but don’t not do it.”

Spitzer was able to celebrate her studies and success at 2021 spring commencement.

“I did it, and I did it in my normal fashion,” Spitzer said. “I don’t do anything mediocre.”

Monica Sager is a graduate student at Clark University studying communications. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa as an undergraduate there. She completed her Bachelor’s in psychology and student-designed journalism, with a minor in English, in June 2021. Clark University is home to the Lambda of Massachusetts chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.