Among the thousands of seniors finishing their last semester at Weber State University this spring, another kind of senior is relaunching her educational journey — and gaining millions of followers in the process.
Sharon Barber, 79, is earning an associate’s degree at Weber State after taking a 40-year break to work and raise a family. She has five children, 16 grandchildren and recently welcomed her ninth great-grandchild.
“I’m a nontraditional student in every sense of the word,” Barber said. “When I first started classes, I was kind of an anomaly. I got a few strange looks. But I decided I’m going to go in there like any other student, with a positive attitude. Now I’m feeling like I’m in my element.”
Although she had some college experience, Barber spent four decades doing everything from sales to substitute teaching to starting her own publishing company. In the back of her mind, she always wanted to finish what she started.
She now plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in creative writing at Weber State after finishing her associate’s degree.
Barber calls herself a writer at heart, having written hundreds of poems and the beginnings of several books. She wanted “more guidance, more expertise, more instruction” from professors and chose Weber State because it was already in the family. Two of her sons graduated from WSU.
“When you haven’t been to school for 40 years, everything is hard,” she said. “But I have just met the most amazing, kind, considerate, helpful students that have helped me on this journey.”
At first, Barber wondered what fellow students would think of her, not only because of her age, but because she has spasmodic dysphonia, which causes her voice to shake. To face that fear, she took a public speaking class.
“I thought, if I nip this in the bud, I’ll be able to do anything,” she said. “I met many friends in that class, and I got an A.”
Since then, Barber has become beloved in her classes, offering hugs and high fives to much younger classmates.
College isn’t the only realm where Barber is a bit older than her peers; she’s also gained more than 2.3 million followers on TikTok, where fans know her as “grandmagreat.”
Barber became interested in the social media platform in 2020 when her daughter and granddaughter recorded a TikTok video in her backyard.
“My daughter said, ‘Mom, you would be so good at TikTok. You love people, you’re funny, you’re spontaneous, you’re likable, people love you. Why don’t we do a TikTok?’ And I said OK, and I created my platform.”
Since her first video, Barber has used TikTok to share encouraging messages and snippets of campus life as a “senior” at Weber State. She also hosts a cooking segment called “Simply Delicious,” where she livestreams from her kitchen.
With some videos racking up over 12 million views, Barber said she’s grateful to serve as a grandmother figure to what she calls her “TikTok grandchildren.”
She receives thousands of comments and messages each week and does her best to respond to all of them.
“There are so many people looking for someone to care, to reach out, to tell them they’re enough, to tell them that they can do hard things,” she said. “I don’t have any degree in psychology or sociology, but I have at least 50 years of good experience in dealing with life. And all I can offer is just what I know, what I feel.”
Barber is best known for her motto, “I can do hard things” — a message she’s proud to share with those who are struggling to believe in themselves. She ends most of her videos looking directly into the camera and saying, “I love you.”
“Love is an energy that you can put out there in the universe,” Barber said. “I believe that social media is a means of doing that. And I hope that ‘I love you’ resonates with whoever’s needing that.”
As for the future, Barber expects to earn her bachelor’s degree at age 84 and would also like to ring in her 80s by skydiving.
“I’m always looking for more challenges,” she said.