Nancy Watson: Leaving a Legacy

Nancy Watson has persevered to earn her degree through BYU’s Bachelor of General Studies program, completing a journey that began in 1963.

DSCF2149PROVO, Utah (December 17, 2015)—Nancy Watson arrived at Brigham Young University in January of 1963, studying for two years before leaving to serve an LDS mission to Argentina. She returned to BYU in 1967 for a semester before meeting her husband and leaving again, this time to start a family. Nearly 50 years later, and Watson is receiving the degree that she started on so long ago.

Watson is just one of nearly one thousand men and women currently enrolled in BYU’s Bachelor of General Studies program. The program welcomes former BYU students who have completed at least 30 credit hours but for one reason or another had to cut their university education short. Within the program, these students can pick up where they left off through independent study, so the majority live outside of Utah, taking classes online and working toward their degrees from home. Since its inception in the late 90s, the program has presented bachelor’s degrees to over 1,600 graduates, averaging 120 to 150 a year.

Never Too Late

Since leaving BYU in 1967, Watson has been busy. She spent 18 years at Hewlett Packard, training people on computer programs and writing end-user manuals; taught classes on family history while doing her own family’s genealogical work; and raised three children, all now with children of their own. After retiring, she and her husband moved to the small town of Sidney, British Columbia, where Watson continues to teach family history classes at the Victoria Family History Centre.

But in the back of her mind, Watson always intended to finish her education. She was 65 when a flyer on a church bulletin board brought that plan back into the forefront. “My brother went back and got his Ph.D., and he’s older than I am,” she says. “I figured if he could do it, then I could do it too.”

Watson returned to BYU in 2009, this time pursuing an emphasis in writing and taking her courses online.

Overcoming Trials

Less than a year after entering the program, Watson was diagnosed with cancer. Despite undergoing treatment and chemotherapy, she continued with her studies. Thanks to the B.G.S. program’s flexibility, Watson was able to work according to her own schedule. She explained, “I was able to continue taking the courses and doing my homework, even though I wasn’t always feeling well, but I had enough time to go ahead and do it at my own pace and as my health permitted. And then as I recovered, I was able to pick up the pace.”

The cancer slowed her down, putting her two years behind her original goal. But it couldn’t keep her down completely. “I kept up with my classes,” she says, “because I figured that the only thing you can take with you is what you’ve learned.”

Watson admits that there were times when the temptation to quit was strong: “Sometimes I would think, ‘What am I doing this for?’” Her husband, fortunately, was “a great cheerleader” and encouraged her. “He would say, ‘Well, one of the things we’re doing it for is for our children and grandchildren. Especially the grandchildren: so they understand that an education is really important.’”

With that perspective, Watson was able to turn graduation into more than just a personal achievement: for Watson, it is a familial responsibility. Still fighting the cancer, Watson remains committed to serving her family; not just her descendants, but her ancestors as well.

Tom-NancyA Service to Family

Watson describes her mother as “a great genealogist” who left little work for her daughter to do as far as family history was concerned. But when she married her husband – a convert to the Mormon Church – she discovered a wealth of unexplored family history, fertile ground for a genealogy enthusiast like herself.

“It keeps your mind active all the time,” she says, explaining her love for genealogy. Many of her B.G.S. classes have focused on family history: how to conduct it and where to search. One class in particular – HIST 350, British Family: Local and Social History – helped her to better research her husband’s family, who originated in Wales. And with those people so far removed by time, distance and culture, Watson needed all the help she could get to piece together their histories.

“It’s a mystery,” she says. “Like a puzzle. You ask questions: ‘Why did they do that?’ ‘Why did they move?’ ‘Why did five of their children die all at once?’ And then you find out from history that there was a plague, and you can identify with these people.”

Her writing classes have helped her to record their stories – and her own as well. As she looked after her ancestors and learned about their lives, Watson began to wonder how her own descendants would look at her. What story would she leave behind for them to learn from? She says, “They’ll look back in 50 years and think, ‘Why did you vote the way you did?’ or ‘Why did we move to Canada?’ You start thinking in terms of leaving a legacy.”

Lifelong Learning

With graduation upon her, Watson is more sure than ever that education is ongoing. “What I have found is that the ship has never left,” she says, speaking to those who feel they’ve missed their chance. “Or maybe it has left, but you are on it.”

“We’re here on Earth to continue to improve ourselves. The only thing we can take with us is what we’ve learned; and the only important thing we leave behind is what we’ve taught to the next generation,” she said. “You should never stop learning.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the English Department for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.