It was a moment Linda Ignagni had anticipated for more than 50 years. She was about to walk across the stage at Wayne State’s May 2023 commencement ceremony to get the degree she began working on more than 50 years ago.
But after all that time, Ignagni admitted she was “close to chickening out.”
“It’s much easier to perform with my violin on stage than it is to walk on stage without my violin in my hand,” said Ignagni, who earned a bachelor’s in music with a concentration in violin performance. “I felt like I was going to die. I didn’t know what to do. They were so kind to me, it was surreal. It was beautiful and I appreciated the applause and everything. I don’t really know how to say thank you.”
Ignagni began attending Wayne State in 1971 and took classes while also raising her two young sons, Joseph and Dan. She thought she had completed her degree in 1989, but returned home from a music tour in Czechoslovakia to learn she hadn’t passed the required written English proficiency test and would not receive her degree until she did.
She suffered from dyslexia and, even after several tries, was unable to pass the timed test. She took English classes hoping they would help, but eventually gave up and resigned herself to the idea that she would never get her degree.
That very well may have remained the case if not for her best friend Sarah Fogel, who met Ignagni when they were both attending Wayne State.
Fogel recently retired and decided to contact Wayne State to see what could be done.
Wayne State University Registrar Kurt Kruschinska received Fogel’s letter and, since the university no longer had the written exam requirement, sent Ignagni’s transcript to College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts Academic Advisor Dan Hanrath to confirm whether Ignagni had met all the requirements for her degree.
“None of it was computerized, so it was a manual process,” Hanrath said. “It was just a matter of going through all the years she was here and finding the appropriate catalog term, making sure she had all the requirements based on her transcript. After we went through, we determined she had completed her degree.”
Hanrath informed Kruschniska that Ignagni had met all the requirements, so he emailed Fogel to inform her. It just so happened that Fogel and Ignagni were driving in the car together when Fogel received the email.
“I was driving and she told me to pull over,” Ignagni said. “I was in the far left lane and thought maybe something was wrong, so I pulled over and had my foot on the brake. She said, ‘Put it in park,’ so I put it in park. She handed me her phone and I started to read it and I saw Wayne State and I just lost it. I started to cry. I was overwhelmed.”
Fogel didn’t tell Ignagni she was writing Wayne State on her behalf. She said she was elated to share that moment with Ignagni and her two granddaughters, who were in the backseat of the car at the time.
“I was so happy for her,” Fogel said. “I believe she’s very deserving of a degree. I'm extremely proud of Wayne State for making this right and actually doing more than I ever anticipated or even thought to ask that, making her feel like the queen for the day. It was great.”
Fogel sat with Ignagni’s sons during commencement and cheered as she walked across the stage.
“It was amazing,” Fogel said of seeing Ignagni walk across the stage. “The best part was I was sitting with her sons, who were so proud. They're grown men now, but to me they're still 7 and 9.
“Linda is a very hard worker and incredibly talented. I don't think she got to go as far as she could have in music because of life circumstances, but we don't all have that privilege and she never complained.”
Ignagni’s sons were just little boys when Fogel met her. Ignagni said she often had to bring them with her to class and rehearsals at Wayne State, which sometimes made for funny moments.
“We were just talking about them roaming the halls,” Ignagni said. “One time, I was at a dress rehearsal and I had to bring my 6-month-old child with me. I put him on a blanket by my feet with a bottle. Valter Poole was conducting and Joseph started to fuss. Valter stops the orchestra and walks over and I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m dead.’ But no, Valter picked up the baby and held him in one arm as he conducted with the other and we continued the rehearsal.”
Ignagni had a successful career as a violinist, music teacher and personnel manager and still continues to perform.
She’s thankful her sons were able to see her earn her degree and even joked that they deserve part of the degree for all the classes and rehearsals she took them to. She’s also thankful for her lifetime friend Fogel, who helped make her dream a reality.
“What can you possibly say to your best friend for doing something like that,” Ignagni said. “We met at Wayne State and have been best friends ever since. When I found out, I couldn’t say anything I was so emotional. I didn’t know what to say to her. It was a wonderful gift. It was something she knew that I always wanted.”
“I met her at the orchestra and there’s a funny story but I won’t tell you that because it’s bad and you can’t print it,” Fogel said with a laugh. “We ended up being great friends and it’s lasted more than 40 years. I saw her through her husband’s illness and her own bout with cancer. I partially helped raise her kids, well I like to say I corrupted her kids, but that’s okay. To see her walk across the stage finally, it was amazing. It was perfect.”