Never too Late to Learn

Older students prove education isn't just for the young.

By Leslie Petrovski

Publish Date: February 18, 2015

Jerry Peterson is slated to graduate in fall 2015
with a B.A. in music. Photo Dave Neligh

It’s a drab day in early December and students are streaming into the Dazbog Coffee shop in front of MSU Denver’s Student Success Building. Finals week is imminent and caffeine is in demand.

Among those awaiting a java fix are one or two individuals sporting backpacks brimming with textbooks and laptops — and a few more life experiences (and perhaps wrinkles) — than a traditional college-aged student. Then again, there’s nothing traditional about MSU Denver’s older undergraduates, many of whom  go to great lengths to obtain their degrees.

Nearly 10 percent of all undergraduates enrolled in U.S. degree-granting institutions are over the age of 40. At MSU Denver, where the average student age is 26, about 1,700 students, or 8 percent of the undergraduate population, are middle-aged or older.

Elizabeth Parmelee, who directs MSU Denver’s Center for Individualized Learning, works with many older students, helping them craft a degree based on their interests or assembling their past college credits into Individualized Degree Programs.

“They might have started before the kids were born and then stopped to be stay-at-home parents or maybe they had a career,” she said.

That was the case for Jean Wilkins, who saw college as a vast learning opportunity. “For me, I went back to school to learn,” she said. “I was like a sponge. I wanted to learn about everything. I was also the first in my family to earn a college degree so it was that much more meaningful.” 

Behind Wilkins’ desk in the Tivoli Student Union hangs her “Metropolitan State College of Denver” diploma from 1993. She earned her degree at the age of 40 after seven-and-a-half years of working full time as the assistant to then-Vice President for Institutional Advancement Harry Gianneschi. Wilkins credits Gianneschi with encouraging her to obtain a degree and mentoring her while she was a student.

Today she serves as assistant to MSU Denver’s Associate Vice President for Student Engagement and Wellness Braelin Pantel, helping both traditional- and nontraditional-aged students earn their own degrees. 

For older students, the trajectory from matriculation to graduation is often not as prescribed as it is for young people, who may be receiving financial support from their families and whose lives are not encumbered by full-time careers and families of their own.

“People don’t understand how hard it is but with Dr. Gianneschi’s encouragement and MSU Denver’s excellent professors, I knew I could succeed,” said Wilkins, who believes the University is a place where all people, regardless of age or background, can thrive. “Now, having an opportunity to assist MSU Denver students working toward their degrees, I can say to them, ‘I know how difficult it can be, but I also know that you can succeed.’” 

Nancyjane Chokyi Hall, 72, started college for the first time at “Metro” in 1968, finally earning her degree 46 years later in December 2014, as the senior member of the senior class.

She started her college career after her first husband left  her and she gave birth to their fourth child. She had taken only a handful of classes before government cutbacks in aid forced her to quit. Then life happened, including three more marriages, another child, Shambhala meditation training, jobs — including one selling jewelry on the beach in Waikiki — and breast cancer. Hall finally returned to MSU Denver in 2009 with the goal of becoming an advocate for people of color, single women and women in poverty.

Her education, she said, has been transformative. “My outlook and strength have gelled. I can walk into a place and say, ‘This is who I am and this is what I want to do.’ It’s about putting yourself in the position of being a player. If you’re not strong enough to get on the playing field, you can’t get on with the game of life.”

In 2009, with just two-and-a-half weeks before the beginning of the semester, Jerry Peterson returned to the first major he started back in the early 1970s at Northern Illinois University — music.

Having worked in multiple careers — as an aircraft welder, Burger King manager, X-ray technician and waiter in fine restaurants — Peterson, 59, suffered a series of personal crises, including the death of a son in a car accident and his wife’s brain cancer. And he began to take stock.

“My wife said to me, ‘You love music. You love to sing. You like to teach and like kids. What are you doing here?’”

Today, Peterson — whose wife, Heather, conquered cancer while she finished her MSU Denver degree in 2009 and graduated with honors — is on pace to graduate in fall 2015 with his bachelor’s in music and a minor in human services. He is also working to launch a nonprofit, Music for All Schools and Students, dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of music education.

“My education,” Peterson said, “has given me a direction to go with my organization. I have a much better idea what to expect when I get off this campus. I’m going to use just about everything.”

Parmelee reports that many older students at MSU Denver are the first in their families to earn degrees. This can compound feelings of insecurity and the confusion associated with higher education bureaucracy. She recalls one older student who was annoyed by the University’s immunization policy. “Where do you get your immunization records from 40 years ago?” Parmelee said. “In those cases, I just advise them to go get a shot.”

Fitting in is also an issue. Peterson, who seems well-liked given the number of hugs and waves coming his way, has taken his share of social hits. He recalls one young woman who looked him up and down and said, “Brothers don’t wear clothes like that anymore.”

He rolls his eyes. “The only reason they talk to me like that is I don’t look my age,” he said. “They think I’m one of them.”

Paula Denton, 55, created her own degree program called “Historiography of Global Cultural Heritage Policy,” an academic porridge of history, art history, political science and English. While she didn’t try to develop friendships with younger students (“I’m old enough to be their grandmother in some cases”), she often got discussions going in class. “I got people to talk,” she said, “because a lot of these kids just sit there and are disengaged when they shouldn’t be.”

Denton graduated in December 2014, festooned with three cords, one each for her membership in history and English honor societies, the third for her Independent Degree Program. Overall, the former legal secretary said students treated her respectfully. “They appreciated my point of view and me being able to get the ball rolling in class,” she said. “I didn’t hang out with them, but they were good to me.”

Van McKellar, 75, brings out framed copies of his diplomas and certificates and lays them on his couch, apologizing for the dust. There’s an associate’s degree in general studies from the Community College of Aurora, certificates in Information Technology and Support and Computer Information Systems, and his MSU Denver degree in Africana Studies (cum laude). As the oldest member of the class of 2012, he sat through commencement full of meds to keep his aches and pains and asthma in check.

“It was a proud day,” he said, “but I was nervous … whether I could sit through the whole thing.”

In his late 60s, by the time he stepped on campus, McKellar had already lived a full life. He dropped out of high school after the 10th grade and enlisted in the Air Force, where he served as an aircraft and missile hydraulic technician. After six-and-a-half years in the military, as he describes it, he bummed around a bit, got sober and at the age of 27, started preaching the Gospel to hippies in the 1960s as a lay Pentecostal minister.

Good in science and technically adept, McKellar had a long career as a machinist. Along the way, he married three times and had four daughters. When his youngest had to leave high school because of her severe asthma, the by-then retired McKellar homeschooled her, the two of them learning side-by-side, dad brushing up on math by poring over “Math for Dummies” books.

“Since I was a very old man in a church where people had degrees,” he said, “I wanted to relate to them better … I wanted to know more about younger African American people.” So he enrolled at MSU Denver.

Concerned less about his scholastic abilities than how he would fit in, McKellar, arthritis and all, made his way to class, learning to temper his style as a former supervisor to be more deferential to younger professors while remaining open to the ideas of younger students.

“In the beginning, I wasn’t sure about the divide between the generations,” he said. “I’m two or three generations ahead of my fellow students. But I saw I could keep up with them, and they saw I wasn’t going to condemn them for everything they said.”

Though studies show that younger students have stronger six-year graduation rates than nontraditional students, much-older students are remarkably persistent. “They seem to stick it out and get through,” Parmelee said. “If they are not retired, they may only take one or two classes at a time. It’s slow but steady. They just keep coming back and I find that they love it.”

“It’s changed me for the better,” Denton said, mentioning that a graduate degree might be in her future. “I feel like I’m a better citizen. Right now I feel like I have the opportunity to do anything I want.”