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Susan Porter
ILR School

Class of 2014

Susan Porter ’14 never thought she would go back to school. Then disaster struck.

When Porter’s granddaughter was just five days away from her first birthday, Porter’s daughter Ali fell and broke her neck.

“The thing that lingers in my head the most was the neurosurgeon telling my daughter, ‘If you pick your baby up, it could kill you,’” she recalls.

At 52, Porter found herself taking care of her one-year-old granddaughter, trying to run her business, The Town Fryer—a restaurant/music venue in downtown Cleveland, Ohio—and supporting her injured daughter.

“There I was, standing in the restaurant with a baby on my hip, trying to prepare lunches for customers and thinking, ‘This is insane.’ I was at my wits end.”

Then one of her regular customers stopped by during his time home from law school and began to encourage her to think about college, as well.

“I said, ‘No, I’m too old,’” she remembers. “Then I said, ‘I can’t afford it.’ He replied, ‘No, you’re not,’ and ‘Yes you can.’”

After tracking down her old high school transcript, filling out the local community college application, and filling the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, Porter found herself back in school for the first time in 34 years at Cuyahoga Community College. The same woman who rehabbed a 127-year-old building in what police told her was a dangerous area of Cleveland, and then turned it into a successful business, still wasn’t sure she could be a college student. “I was terrified,” she admits. “I really was. I thought, ‘Can I even learn at this age? Can I even read a textbook?’”

A new beginning

Within two years Porter was in Phi Theta Kappa, completing her honors thesis, and considering transferring to the ILR School at Cornell. After visiting campus, “I knew it was the place I needed to be,” she says. “Even though it was so big, there is something that is very nurturing here. It envelops me.”

At the end of her visit, she sat on a bench nestled beneath trees near the ILR School. “I thought it was a pipe dream,” Porter recalls. “But I went home, clung to this dream, and just kind of figured if there is a will, there is a way. The rest is history.”

Today, her daughter Ali is walking and healthy. Her daughter Katie is in her last semester of nursing school, and her granddaughter is a happy four-year-old. “We’ve all survived,” she says.

Although she admits that at 54 it’s hard to walk into a classroom only to have students think she’s the teacher, she says they are kind. “A lot of them have had struggles to get here as well,” she says, “And the professors have been crazy great.”

As she wraps up her first semester at Cornell, Porter says she’s tried not to miss a thing. She works part-time researching at the Catherwood Library Kheel Center and has discovered a passion for labor relations. She’s considering studying abroad or completing summer internships in Washington, D.C. or New York City. She also is learning her way around Ithaca—where she can go to indulge her passions for cooking, art, music, and how to navigate the bus system.

Life is good—so good that she sometimes wonders if it’s really happening. “I still pinch myself,” she says.

Moments of reality do creep in, occasionally. She misses her granddaughter—she sends her cards every week—and misses her daughters. But she knows they will come and visit, and she will see them over breaks. Having a routine helps, too.

“Although it was fast and furious starting here,” she recalls, “now that the dust has started to settle, and I have more of a routine, I feel like I can venture out a little bit. Some things are hard to do when you don’t have a car, but it’s part of the whole educational experience.”

Encouraging others

Her positive and practical outlook benefits her younger ILR classmates. Lillien Drennon ’14, a transfer student from Binghamton, New York, says “Susan has a perspective that no one else in most of our classes has to offer, which makes it meaningful when she shares her thoughts on a given topic. She is, by far, one of the kindest, most considerate people I have met at Cornell.”

Although she no longer runs her restaurant, Porter still harbors a desire to care for others.

“For our first prelim, Susan invited our study group to her apartment for dinner. We created an outline together and feasted over rice, chili, and salad. She is such an amazing cook,” Drennon says. “Basically, she’s amazing.”

Porter believes it’s important to offer encouragement, whether it’s in the form of food or conversation. “No matter what you’re going through it can be better,” she says. “Have faith in yourself and your own abilities. It wasn’t that long ago that people said women shouldn’t even be in the workplace, and now look at us. Sometimes I just laugh thinking about it: 54 years old and a junior at Cornell University.”