Mother-daughter team from Savin Hill make history at Harvard

Rosemary Dowling, 79, left, and her daughter Rosemary McCarthy both took degrees from Harvard University last week, marking the first time in the university's long history that a mother and daughter graduated on the same day. Photo: Jeffry Pike/Harvard University.

For the past ten years, two women raised in Dorchester rode the MBTA's Red Line countless nights to take classes at the Harvard Extension School. On June 7th, Rosemary Dowling, 79, and her daughter, Rosemary McCarthy, 55, both reached their goal of graduating with a bachelor's degree in History.

This is the first time in Harvard Extension School's history that they have graduated both a mother and daughter with a bachelor of liberal arts in the same year, according to Linda Cross, Director of Communications at the school.

"It's been a family affair," said Dowling. Her son, John, was working towards a master's degree in biology ten years ago when he suggested that she and her daughter take a class. "We'll go and give it a try," McCarthy said. She and her mother took an introduction to psychology class, then took a history of Boston class, and after that, they dove right into their undergraduate studies.

Taking classes ranging from History of Science in the Middle Ages to Spanish to Museum Studies to Human Sexuality, this pair took most of their classes together. Dowling said the age gap between them and the other students was a "non-issue."

"As an adult, I think you can look back on your experiences and relate to that course," she added, which brings a unique perspective to a classroom of younger students.

"They don't give you slack for your age," McCarthy added. "When you take your test, the only thing on there is your name, not your age," she said.

Dowling agrees. "We really knuckled down, and nobody got fed here," she said, laughing.

The two always wanted to go back to school, but it never seemed to fit into their busy lives. With six people in her family and graduating high school near the end of World War II, Dowling said that although she "always liked school," she knew the only option at that time was to find a job. After raising four children and working for the Post Office for thirty years, she retired, and traveled.

McCarthy wanted to go to school too, but she had a family and a full-time job. When the time came that they could juggle work, family, and school, they started their studies at Harvard, deciding to make good on their dreams of going to college.

At times it would get hectic. McCarthy described one semester a few years ago when she was taking two challenging courses in addition to a full-time job:

"It was unbelievable," she said. There were "forty hours a week of homework," she said. The only way she said got everything done was to lock herself in her home office every night after work. On weekends she would start studying at 8 a.m. "and not come back out until 11:30 at night."

"That was a killer," she said.

Semesters like that "bit into your social life," chimed in Dowling.

A challenge Dowling faced was a required math class. "Everyone tutored her," said McCarthy. "I tutored her... my brother tutored her, the TAs [teaching assistants] tutored her."

"But we went through it, we did it one way or another," said Dowling.

Dowling says what helped her stay in school was the desire to get it done. She also talked about curiosity being a crucial factor.

"You have to really want to learn something different all the time," she said. McCarthy calls her mother a "history sponge."

"Someone's always calling me up," said Dowling, "asking me history questions," in order to help their children with homework assignments.

McCarthy, who is an interior designer, says she has taken some of the things she has learned at Harvard and applied it to her daily life.

"All of [the] psych classes I've had have really helped me with my clients," she said, namely, "trying to put people at ease when they're making choices and prioritize what's really important."

As well as taking most of their classes together, Dowling and McCarthy also studied together. Sometimes they would have review sessions at Dowling's Savin Hill home, other times at the Harvard libraries. They admitted to having different studying styles, however, that sometimes got in the way.

"I used to totally confuse her because I'd have different observations," said Dowling, who would at times disagree with what the professor had to say about a study topic.

"I'd say, 'I don't care if you're right, I am only studying what they told me because they are making up the exam,'" McCarthy said. They were study buddies, even at times of disagreement.

Their drive for education has inspired others in their family to go back to school. Ralph Dowling, McCarthy's younger brother, is taking classes at UMass- Boston.

"We're very proud of my mom and my sister," said Dowling, 45,who works for the Boston Fire Department. "I think my mother put it best: knowledge and education is something you can't get enough of."

"It was probably something that kept her young," he added.

"No matter how young or how old you are, if you want to do it, you can do it," said Rosemary Dowling.

In Dowling's dining room, she has what she calls a "Harvard Wall," with her diploma after completing her associate's degree, pictures of her and her son at his graduation from Harvard Extension School, as well as artwork depicting Harvard that McCarthy painted. Her new diploma will go up there as well, showcasing her hard work, ten years in the making.

Where to next for this mother- daughter pair? In the fall, they are thinking about pursuing a graduate degree.

But as for now, they are looking forward to celebrating their accomplishments with a much-deserved vacation on the Cape.

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