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Lifelong learners: In their 80s, these doctoral graduates are making the grade

Donald Bordenaro and his wife Jane (Photos by Kendall Tidwell)

For many of this year’s older graduates at Liberty University, the thirst for knowledge has never really stopped — even in the retirement years and well beyond. With Liberty’s online education options making it possible for students of all ages to study on their own schedules, from their own homes around the country and around the globe, the university is seeing more students in their later years adding another degree to their life repertoire and using it to better their communities.

Among the sea of caps and gowns during Commencement last weekend was Donald Bordenaro, 84, the oldest graduate in the Class of 2023 to receive a doctorate. He earned his Doctor of Ministry in Discipleship through Liberty University Online Programs, joining over 23,000* in this year’s graduating class who have pursued their studies online.

“I really want to encourage people to forget about ‘I’m too old’ or ‘I can’t learn,’” said Bordenaro, a part-time discipleship pastor at First Christian Church in Buckner, Mo., who will use his doctorate to better teach biblical discipleship to his congregation. “If their brain is functioning normally, they can learn. Whether we go to college or not, we should still feed our mind and brain new information and be constantly learning. That’s another purpose for why I took on this task of earning another degree — to help young people and adults to see that, ‘Yeah I can do it; regardless of my age, I can do it.’”

Like many of Liberty’s graduates who pursued their degrees online, Commencement was the first time Bordenaro had visited Liberty’s campus. He and his wife, Jane, who married on May 6, drove from Kearney, Mo., the day after their wedding to spend part of their honeymoon in Lynchburg.

He said he had first learned of Liberty many decades ago, when a popular television pastor spoke of establishing a new school.

“I used to watch Liberty’s founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., on TV back in the 1970s when he was talking about a vision and a dream,” he said.

Several years ago, Bordenaro saw a Liberty advertisement online. Although he has spent much of his adult life in ministry roles, it was only in the last several years that he said he realized the need to understand biblical discipleship more clearly.

“My main goal in enrolling at Liberty was not the degree itself but what I could learn, and a degree would just be a bonus,” he said. “I wanted to learn how to make disciples, and I wanted to teach others how to make disciples.”

“We needed to be revitalized,” he added about the people he serves. “And I believe discipleship is one of the ways, or the way, of doing that.”

Bordenaro said Liberty made the online degree experience engaging and enjoyable.

“I have found the professors very helpful and encouraging,” he said. “When I needed to improve in some areas, they offered instruction or constructive criticism, but I could always sense that it was done in love or out of concern for me to work a little harder. I am grateful for all of the professors I had and for my fellow students.”

“I would recommend Liberty University for any other degree that a person is working toward or may want to work toward,” he added. “I am very impressed with the education I received, and I am very thankful and grateful that God led me to Liberty.”

Marjorie Dent

Marjorie Dent, 83, also participated in ceremonies last week, after earning her Doctor of Ministry: Chaplaincy. Like Bordenaro, she will put her degree into practice. She has served as a police chaplain in Atlanta for over five years.

Dent grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. After finishing high school, she traveled to England to study nursing.

“I left home with maybe 50 cents in my pocket because after I bought my suitcase and everything else, that’s all I had left,” she said.

But she never finished her degree in England. She met her husband, the late Major Jesse A. Dent Jr., during a trip to Germany and they eventually married and moved to the U.S.

In 1974, she completed her associate degree in nursing at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Va. Years later, she continued her studies at various schools in the Atlanta area. After graduating with her Master of Divinity from the Morehouse School of Religion in 1993, she earned a Certificate in Clinical Pastoral Education in 1994 from Emory University Hospital. Dent began working as a chaplain for police officers at the College Park Police Department in the Atlanta area after retiring in 2017 from church ministry.

In 2018, through College Park Police Department Senior Chaplain Jamelle McKenzie, Dent heard about Liberty and enrolled, finishing her doctorate last December.

“I want to enhance the chaplaincy in our department right now,” Dent said, especially as it undergoes new leadership and seeks to build trust with officers. “Some officers can feel like they’re not valued or cared for. Building that bridge of trust between the chaplains and the police officers will create a better atmosphere. We can just connect with them and listen to their story if they choose to (share it).”

In addition to battling health issues during her studies, her house flooded, and she had to move out for an entire year while repairs were made. But she was determined to continue her coursework.

Dent said she has appreciated the kindness and care she received from her Liberty professors.

“All of my professors were so caring and understanding. They motivated me, they prayed for me, and that was an essential part of my journey of finishing. You get weary along the way.”

She said she hopes that her story serves as a testimony to her loved ones that they too can chase their educational ambitions. Dent has five children, 11 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

“I encourage my children and others (by reminding them) that with God all things are possible,” she said. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to you your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your path.”

Dent began attending school in Jamaica when she was 3 years old. Now, 80 years later, her education journey has reached another milestone.


*All data reported is based on preliminary numbers for the 2022-23 academic year.

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