“We couldn’t have another child graduate from college before us; we had to get in there quick,” laughs Carl Johnson of Meadville, Mississippi.
And so he and wife Melody did just that – swooping in to graduate the same day from university, a semester before their youngest son Ryan got his degree.
After Ryan posted a picture with his parents in their graduation outfits on Twitter, it went viral.
With 102,000 likes and 11,000 retweets, the support has overwhelmed the family.
‘I can do this’
Ryan, 21, said he thought people might like to see a moment he was so proud of, but had no idea the reaction would lead to thousands of strangers from around the world sharing their well-wishes with his parents.
Mrs Johnson studied special education while Mr Johnson studied social work.
Ryan said: “I had no idea it was going to blow up like this. I showed my parents the reaction as they weren’t on Twitter. It was amazing – so many people said congratulations and told us how inspired they felt.”
After finishing high school as teenagers, his parents got married 33 years ago, began working and family life with seven children.
Mrs Johnson, 51, said the pair began to seriously think about returning to education when their eldest daughter graduated from college.
“I said, ‘I can do this’, when I saw what she had done. Then seeing my next daughter inspired me and made me think we could do much more.
“My mum, dad and grandparents didn’t go to college, but I was so proud to see my older children graduate.”
It wasn’t until 2015, though, that the couple enrolled in their local community college.
“We studied at Copiah-Lincoln Community College and graduated in December 2015. We then decided to pursue our bachelor degrees. My husband wanted to get into social work and I wanted to study education.”
They spent four years at Alcorn State University in Claiborne County, Mississippi, studying at the same time as Ryan began to pursue his own bachelor degree at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“We would all support and motivate each other but it was a real learning curve to adjust to studying again after such a long time,” said Mr Johnson.
Mrs Johnson was working full time in the accounting department of a local telephone company at the same time, so would try to fit in her academic commitments around her job.
“I would study at night, using online courses – anything I could do; I just had to fit it in. If I had homework, I would stay up late to do it. The whole family supported us, though.
“An education can take you anywhere and I want to be a special education teacher.”
The pair paid for their education thanks to scholarships, financial aid and tapping into savings.
‘Follow your dreams’
The couple were so dedicated that they graduated a semester earlier than Ryan, who plans to study at law school next year.
“I’m actually on time – they finished early. I see them working so hard and it inspires me,” their son said.
Mr Johnson, who used to work in the car industry, went to university full time. He said it took him a while to get used to studying again, especially as he was one of the older students in his year.
In fact at one point he got mistaken for a teacher in Spanish class.
Mrs Johnson said they never thought they would get so much attention as all they wanted to do was improve their lives.
“We’re from a small town in Mississippi; this is just astonishing to see how many people have sent us so much love.”
But what next? The couple have big plans and are looking to study for their masters degrees.
Mr Johnson says: “I want to help disadvantaged children. This is my passion.”
But what advice do they have for other families?
Mr Johnson says: “Follow your dreams – if you have a goal in mind, look forward to it and just keep going.”