Editor’s note: This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.

In 2006 Ethel Stafford walked into an American history class taught by Tim McCarthy ’93 in Dorchester, Mass. The Harvard lecturer immediately noticed a spark.

“She was one of our best and brightest,” said McCarthy of the married mother of two, grandmother of five, and current full-time employee in the Board Review Department with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

McCarthy, who is a lecturer in history and literature and public policy at Harvard, was impressed by his student’s drive and desire to learn.

“Ethel was one of the most dedicated and inspiring students I’ve taught in any setting in my career,” he said.

Stafford was taking part in the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities for low-income adults. McCarthy, who has long been affiliated with the program both as a teacher and its academic director, said the yearlong college course offers another chance to those who have had to put their educations on hold. “We are opening the door and seeing what happens when someone walks through.”

A Georgia native, Stafford received her associate degree in 1994 from the New England College of Business and Finance but abandoned her studies to take care of her children. Thirteen years later, she walked through that open door straight to the steps of Harvard, where she will graduate today from the Harvard Extension School with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a citation in management.

“This experience is a missed opportunity in my life, recaptured,” she said.

When Stafford graduated from the Clemente program in 2007, McCarthy introduced her to Suzanne Spreadbury, the Extension School’s associate dean, who offered her an opportunity to apply for a pre-degree scholarship to cover the first three courses required for admission.

“I was so impressed with her determination,” said Spreadbury. “I knew we had to support her higher educational journey.”

Stafford enrolled as a junior and took on two, sometimes three classes a semester over the past four years, working full time during the day and making the trip to Cambridge for classes in the evening.

Her course load included everything from history, literature, philosophy, and Spanish, to organizational behavior and the fundamentals of public speaking. A tireless student, she completed an intensive seminar in January titled “Psychological Resilience,” working on weekends to save up comp time in her job so she could be on campus the required three to four days per week through the winter semester.

Her love of learning kept her energy level high, she said. “I do enjoy it, and surprisingly I am not tired.”

Stafford, now 60, plans to become an organizational-development consultant with her new degree. She praised her Harvard professors as “simply awesome” and called her experience with Harvard staff “really, really wonderful.”

“I am proud, and I am very, very, very honored that I have had an opportunity to be a part of the Harvard Extension School, “said Stafford. “It is just phenomenal. It’s really all about the students.”

“I could not be more proud of her,” said McCarthy. “I know how hungry she was for this opportunity, how serious she was about taking advantage of this opportunity, and how beautiful it is to have seen her take this opportunity and flourish.”

Seeing her graduate today will be “particularly sweet,” he added.

“It’s a culmination, but it’s also a beginning. I am thrilled to see what the future holds for her.”

View a list of 2011 Harvard Extension School prize and award recipients.