Some mothers and daughters do everything together – early morning jogs, shifts at the food pantry, nights at the theater.

Catherine and Cailee Oliver have been earning their graduate degrees.

Graduating Together With Master’s Degrees

This May, Catherine was awarded her Ed.M. from Rutgers Graduate School of Education. Her daughter Cailee received her M.S.W. from Rutgers School of Social Work.

And it’s a safe bet that the dual graduation party for the Monmouth Junction duo was a memorable one.

“My dad really wanted to do something big,” Cailee, 23, confides. “He kept saying it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Sharing that experience, though – especially the procession in cap and gown to receive their diplomas -- was Cailee’s idea.

“I really wanted her to have the spotlight to herself -- she had to have a virtual graduation ceremony as an undergrad, because of Covid,” Catherine, 47, says. “I told her, ‘You really deserve this day – I’ll bow out.’ But she said, ‘Oh, no, you’re walking with me. How many people can say they graduated with their mom?’”

Although they both have ample reason to celebrate, Catherine admits she’s been waiting a lot longer for this day.

“Education was always important to me, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do right out of high school,” she explains. “And the cost of education being what it is, I didn’t want to go to college unless I had a goal. So I went to work instead -- and then I was a young mother, and then suddenly I was 30 and had two kids. But I still felt I needed to complete my dreams.”

Catherine began taking courses at Middlesex Community College in 2006. (“With work and everything, I could only do one class a semester.”) Then, transferring to Rutgers in 2013, she set out after her bachelor’s. She also eventually took a job on campus in the Division of Continuing Studies, working with the Rutgers Statewide program.

“It took me until 2017 to get that bachelor’s degree,” she says. “But I wanted my kids to see that, even if it takes you longer, if you try hard enough, you can reach your goal. I wanted to be a role model for them. Honestly, there were times when we were all sitting at the kitchen table, doing our homework together – me for college and them for elementary school!”

“My mother’s ambition and determination inspired me to follow my own educational path,” Cailee says. “When she has a goal in mind, she will do everything she can to achieve it. She always tries her best, learns from her mistakes, and, no matter what keeps moving forward. She’s not just a great role model for me – she’s an amazing role model for everyone.”

Each woman says they couldn’t have done it without the other.

“Cailee sort of modeled the way for me,” says Catherine. “How to prioritize your time, how to put on blinders and just focus. And if we're ever feeling down, she would back me up, saying, ‘Mom, you’re going to get through this!’ We just had this great partnership, where we could talk about the challenges and what we were going through.”

“It’s been great because we’re not in the same school, we’re not studying the same thing, but we’re still sharing the same grad-school experience,” Cailee says. “We’re going through similar things, and we can talk about study skills or strategies. We understand each other, and we’re there for each other.”

The results, say their professors, are obvious – and impressive.

“Catherine took two fairly demanding courses from me, courses that require quite a lot of work,” says Susan J. Schurman, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations. “And she absolutely excelled. It’s a fully online program, and not everyone masters that format – it takes teamwork, and leadership – but Catherine was outstanding.”

“Cailee is the best type of student,” says Prof. Beverly Mason, Director of CAPS Next Step Program. “She’s conscientious, she’s interested in the material, she has a really good grasp of synthesizing what her field supervisor is telling her, what she’s hearing in class, what she’s getting from the reading. She’s a genuinely caring individual and will make a great social worker.”

After graduation, Cailee hopes to work at combatting human trafficking (“I’m researching fellowships right now,” she confides.) And when it comes to her career in education, Catherine “wants to do all of it!” – helping students master their GED or ESL classes, working with other teachers on professional development courses, and making online learning more engaging.

“I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up!” she says with a laugh.

But whatever comes next for the Olivers in education and social work, the foundations for their success were set down years ago at that kitchen table – sitting side by side, working away on their separate assignments.

“It’s been a journey,” Catherine admits. “But, you know, I think of my dad. He was a Marine, and he used to take us hiking, and he’d say, ‘Hiking, it’s just putting one foot in front of the other.’ And that’s what getting here was. Just putting one foot in front of the other.”