Hamilton County entrepreneur Greg Vital took 36 years to finish his college degree, but on Sunday he graduated from Southern Adventist University and was the commencement speaker.
"Leave college with persistence, passion and a plan. Define yourself by the things you've accomplished," he told some 440 graduates and thousands of people at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
The graduating class also included Southern's first doctor of nursing practice graduates, the first doctoral program at the university.
Vital gave the commencement address two years after a controversy ignited over whether he intentionally misled people into thinking he already had a college degree. The context was his unsuccessful campaign for the 10th District state Senate seat in 2012.
Vital, 58, says he has always been upfront about his educational status. It wasn't that flap that motivated him to get his degree, he said in an interview Sunday: He did it for personal satisfaction.
"This is about inspiring young people whose life and education gets interrupted, showing them that we must go back and finish what we start," he said.
The co-founder and president of Independent Healthcare Properties, Vital enrolled at Southern for his last semester of school in January, 36 years after he left in 1978.
He took two accounting courses and a statistics class needed to earn a bachelor's degree in business managements.
He left a semester short of graduating because he thought he already had a Ph.D., he joked.
"I was poor, hungry and driven," he said Sunday.
Vital wants to inspire people to the knowledge that they are never too old to learn.
Barbara James, a Ph.D. and dean of Southern's school of nursing, congratulated the six students who received the first doctor of nursing practice degrees.
Nationally there is a goal for nurse practitioners to have doctoral degrees, said Holly Gadd, who holds a Ph.D. and is a professor of nursing.
The school enrolled its first students into the program in fall 2012. Students may study with an emphasis on health promotion and prevention or acute care.
It's a five semester online program with three campus visits.
Four of the six students already have jobs. Two are still looking.
It remains to be seen if graduates with doctor of nursing practice degrees will earn more money. However, the doctoral degree allows students to participate in more leadership roles and in policymaking, said James.
"The possibilities for them are wide and broad," she said.
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6431.