After a 54-year break, she’s graduating

Janet Hoffmann Vitolo, who left Carolina after her junior year in 1970, just completed her bachelor’s degree.

Janet Vitolo standing on campus with book in her hand while fellow students walk around her.
55 years after first arriving in Chapel Hill, Janet Vitolo is set to graduate this May with a degree in English. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

What happens in life can often be better than what you planned, Janet Hoffmann Vitolo, 74, tells her much younger Carolina classmates.

Hoffmann, who prefers her maiden name, knows this from firsthand experience. She’s stepped through many doors that opened unbidden in her life, like the unplanned pregnancy and marriage that halted her college progress in 1970.

She had begun her studies at Carolina as a junior, transferring from UNC Greensboro in fall 1969. A botany major, she took a demanding academic load of calculus, biology, chemistry and animal behavior in her first semester. “Unfortunately, calculus was not my friend. I changed to English, and I had some amazing professors,” Hoffmann said.

In summer 1970, she returned home to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where her father was stationed as a U.S. Army command sergeant major at what was then called Fort Bragg. She planned to go door-to-door on the post asking people to sign a petition to stop the Vietnam War. Then her father, who had just returned from Vietnam, asked her, “How will the wives of men serving in Vietnam feel when you ask them to sign the petition?” She decided not to do it.

That same summer, she became pregnant, got married and did not return to Carolina. Instead, Hoffmann trained at what is now Fayetteville Technical Community College to become a dental hygienist and took a job in Charlotte.

After a divorce in 1980, she became a single mom. Rearing her daughter, she said, was her most important responsibility. “I have this wonderful daughter who I love and three grandchildren,” she said. “I don’t regret that.”

She worked for 50 years as a periodontal dental hygienist, structuring her schedule so she could sometimes work second jobs. For 17 years, she was also a flight attendant, and for three years she worked as a pharmaceutical representative one day a week.

In 2021, she retired and decided to try to finish her degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. “I was successful, but my life was missing this one piece, so I wrote to admissions, explaining everything about my life,” she said. A few weeks later, a letter came saying, “Welcome back to Chapel Hill.”

Her academic adviser, Tony Hanson, determined she needed six courses in English and comparative literature to complete her degree. Hoffmann found a room near campus so that she could attend classes two days each week then return home to Charlotte. Her daughter agreed to care for Hoffmann’s Bernedoodle puppy, now a 100-pounder.

During her delayed senior year, Hoffman met “amazing” classmates. “I love to hear their ideas, and it’s given me much hope for our world,” she said. “They aren’t any different in their enthusiasm about life and who they are than we were. At 18, I thought I knew everything, and so do they. Sometimes I remind them that life is not always the way you plan it, and sometimes changes in your plan will actually be better.”

Hoffmann also experienced some Carolina milestones that she missed the first time. She rushed Franklin Street after a Duke game. She bought her cap and gown.

After graduation, she’ll take life one day at a time. “The most important thing to me was coming back to Chapel Hill,” she said. “I’m happy I did it. I’ve never had a better experience in my life.”