It’s Never Too Late

It’s Never Too Late

It’s Never Too Late

Karen Washington Franklin ’73 returns to Georgetown University to write the end of her college story.


Karen Washington Franklin not only loves history, she has made some history of her own. In 1973 she was the second Black student to graduate from St. Agnes School, and this past spring on May 20, she graduated from Georgetown University at the age of 68. In 1978 with just three courses yet to complete, she left Georgetown with the hope of returning in a few years. Those few years stretched into a 45-year hiatus, but she never stopped thinking about concluding her educational journey.

Going Beyond Boundaries

Karen is no stranger to hardship, but she has an optimistic outlook and an unshakeable strength that comes through her faith in God. Her parents divorced when she was four and it took some time before her mother, who was a housewife, could regroup, start working, and support Karen and her brother. For a while they lived with family. “I was fortunate that my aunt and uncle lived in a nice neighborhood with a good integrated school,” Karen says. “Even after we moved, we were able to use their address and I continued to go there and to stay in that better school system.”

In the fifth grade Karen’s appendix burst and she missed almost four months of school while she recovered. She clearly remembers her father bringing her three challenging books to read, “The Scarlet Letter,” “Jane Eyre,” and “The Odyssey,” and she was determined to finish them. “I was only 10 going on 11!” Karen exclaims with a glint in her eye. “It took me a couple of years to finish them, but I read them.” Karen loved to read, and despite living in government housing without much money, she didn’t feel deprived. “I was young and I had my mother’s undying love,” Karen says. “I felt secure, self-confident, and happy.”

Karen’s intelligence was undeniable and her mother wanted her to have the best education possible. She did well in school and on standardized testing, which led to better opportunities. “I was offered a scholarship to Foxcroft School, but it would not have started until the 10th grade,” Karen recalls. “So, in ninth grade my mother sent me to St. Agnes, where I was a very contented boarder.”

Karen thrived at St. Agnes and always felt accepted. “I was overjoyed to be at St. Agnes, because I was a nerd who loved learning,” Karen says with a smile. “In some schools that would require you to stand up for yourself and I wasn’t good at that.” She immersed fully in school life. She was on the Disciplinary Board, the Honor Board, and the Student Council for all four years. Karen joined the Guild, the drama club, Amard, the Spanish and Literary clubs and she was on the volleyball team. She worked on Shearings and the U.N. team for three years with Dr. Marjorie M. Norris, who taught history and had a profound impact on Karen. 

“Dr. Norris was one of the few women I knew at the time who had a Ph.D.,” Karen says. “She actively encouraged my love of reading and of history. It was because of her that I started reading the newspaper every day. She made me realize that what you read in the news today will be history later on.” In addition to creating the four-year Ages of Man program that coordinated the curriculum for history, English, art, and music, Dr. Norris taught her students to think critically, logically, and thoroughly and to work under extreme deadlines. Despite being a very tough teacher, she twice received the highest honor given a faculty member, the dedication of the yearbook, Lambs Tale.

 Academically, Karen appreciated the small classes and individual attention. She studied hard, had excellent grades, and was a National Merit Semifinalist. Her transition to Georgetown was smooth and Karen continued to do well. Initially she pursued an interdisciplinary major in urban studies that required coursework in economics, history, and geography. Due to a disagreement with the adviser on the format of her thesis, Karen switched her major to economics, which meant she couldn’t fulfill all of her required courses by the end of her senior year. “I had the intelligence to get into Georgetown and do well, but I didn’t have the support system, advice, or guidance to help me make it through the last year,” Karen says. Pressures outside of school didn’t help. “At the age of 20 I didn’t apply for any more scholarships and I was aging out of my mom’s health insurance. I watched her work and sacrifice for me and felt it was time for me to support myself.”

Karen landed a job she loved, working in the Superior Court. She started as a bailiff in the courtroom, moved on to an indictment clerk, and later became a courtroom clerk—all without knowing how to type. “All the paperwork was done by hand,” Karen says. “After 38 years, the system was eventually computerized, which was one of the reasons I retired in 2015!” 

It’s Never Too Late 

In between serving on her Homeowners Association Board and the SSSAS Alumni Association Board, and volunteering to help with political campaigns, Karen’s thoughts drifted to her unfinished degree. As she looked into the possibility of returning to college, all the stars began to align. There were challenges, but her family jumped in to help her get started and succeed. She still doesn’t know how to type and admits that she isn’t particularly computer literate, so her niece set up her computer, showed her where her assignments were, and how to navigate the online system. She introduced her to Google’s voice typing function so she could do her papers.

Additionally, Karen knew she was going to have to pass a statistics class, which she had failed to do before she left Georgetown. “One of the reasons I decided to go back to college was I knew my cousin could help me with statistics,” Karen confides. “To help prepare I took a college entry level math class, but she tutored me as well.” Her nephew helped her with the final challenging class she had to complete on sociological theory, involving readings from Friedrich Nietzsche and W.E.B. Du Bois. Karen maintained a 96% grade point average, while more than two dozen students less than half her age dropped the course.

Karen was the oldest graduate in the Class of 2023. When Karen crossed the stage in May to receive her degree in sociology from the Georgetown University College of Arts & Sciences, her family was there to cheer and support her. She was joined by her husband, Guy Franklin, her two children and grandchildren. Her sister, Shawyn Patterson-Howard, who serves as mayor of Mount Vernon, New York and president of the African American Mayors Association, made the trip to D.C.

Karen and Guy are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary this year, and Karen says his support was invaluable to her. With Guy’s love and encouragement, she was driven to finish to set a good example for her younger family members, and her sense of accomplishment is amplified by their support of her ambition to earn her degree and hold it in her hands. “My motto now is it’s never too late,” Karen beamed. “It’s not about pursuing employment in the field you study. It’s not about what you study. It’s all about the fact that you started out to do something and then you finished it.”