When Sandra Schulberg was last in college, Richard Nixon was president,

The Godfather

was in theaters, and Atari had come out with its first generation of video games.

But turns of fortune - both bad and good - prevented the then-Swarthmore College undergraduate from finishing the senior thesis needed to earn her bachelor's degree in anthropology.

Over the last 36 years, Schulberg - niece of Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay for

On the Waterfront

, and daughter of the late Stuart Schulberg, once the producer of the

Today

show - has become an accomplished independent filmmaker, albeit without that bachelor's degree.

That changed yesterday.

Over the last couple of months, the 58-year-old New Yorker completed her thesis in the area that has become her lifelong work: films.

With an anthropological twist, of course.

And a very personal connection.

She wrote about European films that her father helped make about foreign-aid efforts to rebuild Europe after World War II. It was her interest in those films over the last six years that caused her to want to pursue a master's degree - which she found she couldn't get without first attaining her bachelor's.

Her efforts allowed her to graduate with the Class of 2008 on Swarthmore's Main Line campus yesterday.

"I don't recommend that other students follow my lead and procrastinate for nearly four decades, but on the other hand, it was great fun and very stimulating to tackle it at this stage of my life, and on a topic that is at the heart of my current work," she said.

Schulberg said she was grateful to Swarthmore for letting her "come back and turn in some old homework."

With the bachelor's in hand, Schulberg has been accepted into the master's program in public diplomacy at the University of Southern California.

The lack of a bachelor's hadn't halted her success. She was even able to teach as an adjunct assistant professor at the Ivy League Columbia University without one.

"What they value is my actual production experience," said Schulberg, who teaches a graduate course.

Though it's not unusual for one or two students to return to Swarthmore each year for a degree after a break, Schulberg's case stands out.

"In my time here, I've never known anyone to come back after as many years as Sandra. She now holds the record, and we're very thrilled," said Martin Warner, Swarthmore's registrar for the last 13 years.

Schulberg had intended to finish in 1972 and graduate with her class, but she got hepatitis while studying in Mexico and was quarantined for three months.

After recovering, she got a job offer in television, which eventually led her into a productive career, largely as an independent producer of feature films.

She was executive producer of perhaps most notably

Quills

, a movie set in a Napoleonic-era insane asylum, starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet and Michael Caine, that was nominated for three Oscars.

Schulberg also has made movies in China, France and Mexico and plans to make one in Romania.

"I've tried to find ways to make movies where there is a very strong sense of place or that take me to a place where I wouldn't have an opportunity to go unless I were doing a movie there," she said.

Her 50-page senior thesis, which she estimates took her about 100 hours to complete, delved into how the Marshall Plan marketed democracy through films.

The Marshall Plan was a four-year initiative announced by U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall in 1947 to provide foreign aid to European countries for rebuilding after World War II.

Marshall Plan movies "were mini-dramas about these projects and how they were affecting lives," Schulberg said. They were made by European filmmakers for European audiences and were never seen in the United States until Schulberg began to show them around the country several years ago.

Schulberg was born in Paris during the Marshall Plan years, and her father was chief of the Marshall Plan film unit. But it wasn't until 2002 when a professor researching her father's life contacted her that she began to watch the films.

Swarthmore academics were impressed with Schulberg's ability to develop a thesis so relevant to her family history, her work - and the world today. She drew in current efforts to bring democracy and reconstruction to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Sandra was able to give this research very current relevance," said Miguel Diaz-Barriga, chairman of the sociology and anthropology department, who approved Schulberg's thesis. "I really like the perspective she brings."

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com

.