Merry Bird stands out wherever she goes. She's got a stand-up comedian sense of humor and love of life that is contagious. (It also helps that right now she's walking around with casts on both feet.)
It's been no different for Bird while a student at BYU. Following her husband's sudden death, she returned to school after more than 20 years.
"Going back to school when you're older is challenging," Bird said. "We'd go on trips to conferences and I would be asked, 'How many students do you have with you today?' To which I would sheepishly reply, 'I'm not the teacher.'"
Bird's sense of humor kept her and her classmates positive while facing the many challenging tasks expected of them at school. As a Facility and Property Management major in BYU's Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology, she has often been the only woman in classes and study groups. She frequently said to her classmates, "I'm older AND I'm a woman. If I can do this, you guys can, too."
Bird never let her age stop her.
"For me, I feel like I'm 25 years old," Bird said.
The Facility and Property Management major can be quite intense, even for the most technically inclined learners. Bird got through her course work by relying on her own "bizarre way of looking at things" to help her better understand challenging concepts or formulas. Bird made up stories for each of her math formulas so she could remember them. She also compared estimating to shopping and building to sewing.
"Building is just like sewing - you're just using different materials," Bird said. "Instead of cloth, you're using wood. Instead of using stitches to hold something together, you use certain foundation materials."
Outside of school, life was complicated as well. Bird would spend her days at school and her nights watching her grandchildren. To complete each task she had to manage her time wisely and focus on the assignments at hand.
"I would tell myself: 'You have to focus on this; you have two hours. This is all the time that you have, and you need to do it now,'" she said.
With her busy schedule, she couldn't help but feel discouraged at times. Of course she often questioned her decision to return to school. But she never gave up. She knew she was in the right place and doing the right thing.
Smashing into a Stone Wall
Five years ago, Bird's world was turned upside down when her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors felt positive he would have a quick recovery and live for many years after a successful operation of removing her husband's right lung.
Without any warning, he passed away from a blood clot four days after surgery.
"Imagine driving along the road when a stone wall suddenly appears and you smash into it," Bird said. "It shatters everything, and it shatters you. Darkness surrounds you and yet you know that you must put yourself back together and embrace the darkness and the unknown."
Bird knew that she needed to finish her college degree so she could support her four children; the youngest was 14 at the time.
"There are tender mercies that can happen alongside the most horrible of circumstances," Bird said.
Just two months after the death of her husband, Bird sat in her first class at BYU. She said that students in her classes were very respectful and supportive of her decision to return to school. She was grateful to those who were kind to her.
"There would be days when I would have a really hard test or would be experiencing challenges in my family," Bird said. "Nobody knew what I was going through, but they would offer help, open the door, or even just smile at me. It sounds primary, but it gave me hope that I could get through this."
Embracing the Unknown
While the past five years have been a whirlwind of change for Bird, she believes that her faith has kept her grounded during her times of need. She knows that many people experience trials, but she hopes that they will be able to embrace the unknown.
"I hope that nobody else has to do this, to go through this," Bird said. "But, if they do, I'm hoping that they know that they are not alone. And that because I have been able to do it, they can do it. It's possible to do anything if you have hope and faith that it will all be okay."
Bird has some advice for those thinking of going back to school or wondering if staying in school is worth it.
"Go! Do it now!" she said. "If you have any chance, especially for women, to finish your degree, take it! You are going to be a better mother, a better wife and a better person for having a degree. It is a nice safety net. I never in my wildest dreams thought that this would have happened to me."
Writer: Lisa Crofts