UPPER EAST SIDE — Like many students in New York City graduating from college this spring, Carol Berman spent the day before commencement trying on her cap and gown — frenetically figuring out which tassels go where — and ways to sneak lip gloss and a cell phone into the ceremony.
Berman stands out from thousands of other graduates this spring, however — the 64-year-old Upper East Side resident set out on her journey nearly four decades ago and survived breast cancer along the way.
"I had always wanted to go to school. I had just never had the opportunity," said Berman, who graduates Friday from Marymount Manhattan College with a psychology degree and honors.
"Most of my childhood was taking care of my mother and the house. I know I attended high school, but I didn't read a newspaper, I didn't read a book. I just left high school with street smarts and that was it," she added. "You got married, you had a kid and you bought a house, and that was what I did."
At first, all seemed to go according to plan, Berman said: She married when she was 17 years old, and had a daughter, Laura, four years later.
But she divorced at 23, leaving her with a baby to raise and neither the skills nor the education for a job, she said.
"The minute I was separated, I knew I wanted to go to school," she said. "The problem was I had no money, no baby sitters, and I had a 2 1/2-year-old child. At that time, there was no childcare, no programs, nothing."
Berman found part-time work as a secretary and gradually increased her hours. When she was 27, she tried going to community college near her former home in Great Neck.
Though she brought her 5-year-old to class at night, she found that balancing work, motherhood and school on a near-poverty salary to be too challenging and dropped out. That's when she dedicated herself to her job.
"I was a good secretary," Berman said. "I was very organized."
One day, Berman said, she saw an employment ad in the The New York Times and tried to parlay her administrative experience into a sales job. She got the gig and was charged with signing up mom-and-pops to accept credit cards, she said.
Many years and several companies later, this gig propelled Berman to a top job at Citibank — where she worked as a vice president of national sales for credit card services, she said.
When Berman left the banking industry, however, she yearned to return to college. After earning her associate's degree from Nassau Community College in 1999, she tried various four-year institutions, but nothing stuck.
"I thought there was something wrong with me," she said.
At the urging of her daughter, she tried a final time and enrolled at Marymount in 2009.
At long last, all seemed to go according to plan for Berman: She had learned to write papers and even master statistics.
"I was now able to take more than two courses a semester without having a breakdown," she said. "I was determined to graduate before my 65th birthday."
But in 2011, Berman, engrossed with coursework and nearer her goal than ever, was diagnosed with breast cancer, she said.
"My surgery was scheduled for 8 a.m. The last class before the final was right before my surgery. So I went to class and at the end of class I told [the teacher] I wasn't going to be there for the final next week," Berman said. "I wanted to tell her the truth because she knew I wouldn't miss the final.
"She said: 'You're here?' I said, 'I'm here,'" she added. "I actually took the final a couple weeks after."
Berman continued courses that fall while undergoing chemotherapy, she said.
"I laid down a lot," she said. "I made it work."
Professor Linda Solomon, who mentored Berman both as a student and as her statistics teaching assistant, said she was wasn't surprised by Berman's work ethic.
"Being Carol," Solomon said, "she soldiered on.
"If she didn't understand something, if she didn't know how to get from point A to point B, she would make sure she found out," Solomon added.
Berman said she never thought anything of achievement until recently, when she ran into a classmate and her family at a neighborhood diner.
"She said, 'Mom, this is Carol!' and I went 'Oh boy!'" Berman said. "Her mother said, 'Oh, my God, I'm so excited that I met you. Every time she comes home for a weekend, she talks about this woman in class, Carol, how great she is, how she's an honors student.'"
As Berman was on her way out of the restaurant, she gave her classmate a post-graduation email address, and both groups said their goodbyes and parted ways.
Shortly after, she received an email, she said.
"Her mother remembered my email address," Berman said. "She said, 'My daughter will kill me if she knew I was sending you this. Thank you for being an inspiration to my daughter and to the class. You've given me the inspiration. I am going to go back to school.'
"I just sat there and called my daughter. I don't feel special," she said. "I was so overwhelmed."
Berman, who will walk at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall Friday afternoon, hopes to start graduate school this winter.
Right now, though, Berman said she's most looking forward to summer vacation.