Keep Learning: 90-year-old college graduate sends a valuable message

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Keep Learning: 90-year-old college graduate sends a valuable message.

Some might say that at 90 years old, Joyce DeFauw is graduating from college a bit late.

I disagree. Her age is a number, nothing more. A chronological tally. It doesn’t show us the life she has lived, the people she has loved, the children she has raised and the wisdom gained in the process.

Joyce, I’d argue, is getting her bachelor’s degree from Northern Illinois University right on time. And when she walks across the stage at Sunday’s graduation ceremony in DeKalb, her very presence will deliver a message she recently shared with me: “Keep learning. We don’t even use a fraction of our brain, so it’s there if we only take advantage of it and use it. Keep going.”

Joyce has lived the words “keep going.” She started college in 1951. She got married and left several years later. She had kids, then lost her husband. She remarried. Had more kids. Life moved on and on, and she kept going, right until 2019 when, at her family’s suggestion, she reenrolled at NIU to finish what she had started.

“I had mentioned that I wished I would’ve completed my college education way back when,” Joyce said from her apartment in a retirement community in Geneseo, a northwestern Illinois town of about 6,500. “I could never have dreamed it would happen. But here I am, almost done.”

“I started in a one-room country school, and there were probably eight students in the school itself,” she said, recalling her rural Illinois childhood.

She walked 2 miles from her home to the school house. In the winter, her father would take her in a sled, picking up other kids along the way. She packed a lunch that included her mother’s fresh-baked bread, which she’d trade to other students for their store-bought bread. The “bought bread,” as she called it, seemed more novel.

Joyce went on to graduate from high school ranked eighth in her class of 88, earning a scholarship to Northern Illinois State Teachers College, which is now NIU. In 1951, she enrolled, the first member of her family to attend college.

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An introduction to a wider world

Initially, she wanted to be a teacher but wound up switching her major to home economics.

“I felt like it suited me better,” she said.

She took German, and typing, taking every chance she could to learn new things. She played on the university bowling team and worked at a drug store off campus.

A ‘very attractive’ gentleman comes along

Then, as can happen in college, she met someone.

“I met this certain gentleman who was very attractive,” Joyce said, emphasizing the word “very.” “So we decided to get married.”

She left NIU after a little more than three years. Soon the couple had kids, three total. Joyce’s first husband died young. Five years later she remarried and had six more children, including two sets of twins.

A push from family and a return to college

She didn’t become a teacher, but she taught plenty. Her children grew up and she now has 17 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren.

“I have so much,” Joyce said.

But she still lacked that college degree. And the children she raised knew it. So they encouraged her to go for it, setting her up with her first computer and showing her the ropes.

Throughout the COVID-19 lockdown, Joyce took virtual classes ranging from social psychology to adult development and aging. She took a course in gerontology and another about the portrayal of people with disabilities in film.

‘A godsend of inspiration’

It was hard work. This was no honorary degree she was going for, and there were times she wanted to quit. But the “keep going” mantra always kicked in. Joyce’s NIU adviser, Judy Santacaterina, a communications instructor, described Joyce as “a godsend of inspiration when I needed it the most.”

I think we can all take inspiration from Joyce. Life has a tendency to get in the way of things we want to accomplish. And that’s OK – life has to come first. But if you look at someone like Joyce, someone not afraid to learn new things, someone willing to step outside her comfort zone even after nine decades on this mortal plane, you see there’s no “too late.”

What comes next?

In fact, once that long-awaited diploma of Bachelor of General Studies is in her hands, Joyce may just be getting started.

“Who has been given much, much will be required, so I don’t know what He’s got in mind,” she said, referencing the faith she has always embraced. “I hope I fulfill the expectations.”

I think you already have, Joyce. And we’re all better for it.

Happy graduation.



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