Education

With UI degree, grandmother makes good on 50-year-old promise

Bernadine Franks of Iowa City poses Thursday at Gospel Explosion Ministry, where she serves as an elder, in Iowa City. Franks, 66, graduated last year with her bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Bernadine Franks of Iowa City poses Thursday at Gospel Explosion Ministry, where she serves as an elder, in Iowa City. Franks, 66, graduated last year with her bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — It was a half-century ago that Bernadine Franks, who at the time was a 17-year-old married mother, made a promise to her mom that she would graduate from college someday.

“At the time, it didn’t seem to be an unreasonable promise, ‘Sure, I’ll graduate,’ ” Franks, 67, recalled Wednesday. “I did try to go back to school a few different times. ... It just didn’t work out the way I thought it would.”

In 2000, the St. Louis native’s mom, Earline Applewhite, died. Twelve years later, Franks retired as manager of chemical dependency services at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids.

At that point, Franks said, there were no more excuses.

“I would think more and more about the past, and the promise just seemed to always come back. I never did keep that promise. Now that she was no longer here, I couldn’t take it back,” Franks said. “If not now, when?”

In 2015, Franks was one of just 45 students admitted to the University of Iowa’s School of Social Work.

Franks said she wanted to choose a degree that was important to her.

While she was growing up in St. Louis, her mom was an active member of Project HOPE, or Helping Other People Emerge, with founder and civil rights leader the Rev. Buck Jones.

Franks recalls handing out fliers with her mom advocating for bus security or lowered bus fares.

“I always had an affinity for those helping professions,” Franks said. “We were always exposed into that type of work.”

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Her struggles with addiction were another motivator toward social work, Franks said. She now has been sober for 25 years.

Franks admitted there was a learning curve as she adjusted to college life. She recalls how she arrived on campus with a spiral notebook and a pencil, while all her classmates carried laptops. Another challenge was learning to submit assignments online, rather than in person.

But her classmates and professors — almost all of whom were younger than her — treated Franks like any other student, she recalled.

Franks’ granddaughter was in the UI’s Tippie School of Business at the same time, so the two sometimes would see each other on campus.

On Dec. 15, about 50 years after she made that promise to her mother, Franks graduated from the UI with a bachelor’s degree in social work.

Franks said one of the most surprising things has been all the attention she’s received — she recalls news organizations reaching out for interviews during finals week.

Members of the community offered praise and encouragement, and late last year she told her story on NBC’s “Today” show.

While on the show, Franks learned of the UI’s establishment of the Bernadine Franks Scholarship for non-traditional, underrepresented students in the UI School of Social Work.

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“I never knew the people in our community cared that much about somebody they had never met or knew. That was amazing,” Franks said.

This month, Franks will put her new degree to good use as she transitions from a van driver with Faith Academy, a Christian school in Iowa City, to family liaison.

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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