In My Opinion

Sustain and Attain
ByCynthia Maxwell Dillard

Sustainability usually refers to issues of maintaining the environment and ecosystem or improving the ozone layer.

How about personal sustainability? For nearly 60 years, my determination to fulfill a commitment never wavered.

When I was 17, I promised my father that I would obtain my college degree no matter how long it took. No matter the obstacles or other delays I encountered along the way.

Let me tell you, there were many.

An abusive marriage, raising three children as a single parent and a career with county government were a few.

After acquiring the necessary units at a community college in Highland Park, Mich., and transferring to Wayne State University in Detroit, one would think I was on the home stretch. 

But the ensuing decades proved difficult. Just maintaining my self-esteem was a major hurdle. I silently survived physical and emotional abuse at the hands of my then-husband while struggling to provide guidance and nurturing for my children — and juggling a full-time job. Yet I still squeezed in college courses.

I ultimately garnered the strength and insight to survive the emotional stress of divorce, and embraced the unspoken support from my children that sustained us as a family unit. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my children were sustaining me in an enormous way, along with my now-deceased parents, who were my pillars both emotionally and financially, when needed. They were nurturing and giving grandparents.

In 1976, I moved from Detroit to Los Angeles with my two girls; my son had started his first year at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. In California, I married my childhood sweetheart and we became a blended family of eight in 1979. Over time I was able to build a successful career as a vice president in corporate banking in Los Angeles; then as acting executive director at a nonprofit in South Los Angeles — all of which required different levels of sustainability. I grew to understand that allowing myself flexibility and time to reflect meant that I was capable of success in whatever goals I set for myself.  

My time at USC has been the most enjoyable and rewarding part of my educational journey. I first attended USC in 1980 while working at First Interstate Bank and taking a night course in accounting. I didn’t return to USC until 2000 when my husband, Ernie, joined the university, which provided me with educational benefits (available to employees and their families) to complete my education as a Trojan. 

My professors, advisers and the administrative staff have been the best of the best. My professors at USC Dornsife were inspiring, available, very conversant in their subject matter and provided the educational support I needed to succeed. My advisers were also available and supportive and kept me informed about courses in my major that might be of special interest to me.

In life there are obstacles that can hinder progress and growth. I never even mentioned my house burning down and my three knee surgeries. Our challenges may call into question the choices we make; however, sustaining my values meant keeping my promise. In May 2013, I earned my bachelor’s degree in sociology at age 75.

I kept my promise to my father, who died in 1984.

But this journey has not been about holding that diploma. It’s about knowing who I am in this world. This required not only my own ability to sustain from within, but also the loyalty from those who supported and believed in me. I’ve heard it takes only one person to believe in you. In my case, I had friends and a Family.


Cynthia Maxwell-Dillard graduated with her bachelor’s in sociology at USC Dornsife in May 2013. Her first job was at age 17 with the U.S. Department of the Army. She was cleared to work on top secret documents and quickly learned she held a crucial job. Her most fulfilling career experience has been learning about and understanding the complexities and politics of working in a poor and underserved community of Los Angeles.

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazines Fall 2013-Winter 2014 issue