Senior graduates after 16 years of classes

May 20, 2009 | Features
By Jon Strunk

From synchronized swimmer to concert flutist, Betty Smith has been able to call herself a lot of things for the last 84 years of her life, but college graduate was never one of them. That changed May 10 when Smith earned her bachelor of arts degree from The University of Toledo after 16 consecutive years of study.

Smith started her degree work in fall 1993 when she turned 65 years old and could attend UT for free thanks to Program 60, an initiative to provide area senior citizens with an opportunity to continue their education.

Betty Smith and her husband, Hoyt Ensign

Betty Smith and her husband, Hoyt Ensign

It was an enticing proposition for Smith, who never went to college, though she was poised to excel after graduating from her 1942 Wisconsin high school as valedictorian.

“There was just no money to ever get there,” she said. “I had some scholarships, but it just wasn’t important for a girl to go to college back then. I wasn’t encouraged.”

So she built a home and family, took a job as an assistant to the manager of the Department of Medicine at the former Medical College of Ohio, and put her own children through college, vowing to not give up on her desire to pursue a better education. One of her daughters, Sarah Smith, is a dentist now. She said earning a degree was constantly on her mother’s mind.

“It’s always something she wanted to finish,” Sarah said. “But that just wasn’t something you did back then.”

Now retired and able to earn a degree at little cost, Betty took the opportunity. One or two classes per semester, she chipped away at the requirements for her BA in adult liberal studies.

But 16 years is a long time, and Betty had to deal with some drastic changes in teaching and learning methods along the way. Her husband, Hoyt Ensign, who audited the classes while Betty took them for credit, said the increase in computer usage was probably the most challenging shift they had to deal with.

“The computer made such a difference to us,” he said. “It really changed the whole game.”

Glenn Sheldon, a professor in the program and Betty’s thesis adviser, said her interest and gusto in learning, even after 16 years of taking classes and dealing with changing technologies, was unmatched.

“If every freshman were as enthusiastic as she was, my job would be a breeze,” Sheldon said. “Having nontraditional students in any class is an educational experience, and her contributions were always insightful.”

Enthusiasm and drive were almost not enough for Betty to make it to the finish line though. When registration rules for Program 60 changed in 2008, requiring seniors whose income didn’t fall below twice the federal poverty line to pay full tuition, she was ready to call it quits.

“I was about to drop out when I had to start paying,” she said. “But my kids kept telling me ‘No, no, no.’”

Betty transferred to Owens Community College for her last few needed elective courses and then came back to UT to work with Sheldon to finish her thesis, which she started working on long before.

Sheldon said her 25-page paper, “Strategies on Aging,” was more relevant and current than papers from some younger students.

“It is a great model for how we should approach entering our 60s and 70s,” he said. “Her work brought in some of the more cutting-edge theories … she’s a very bright young woman.”

She’d done it. After 16 years of work, Betty was finally ready to accept her degree. And nothing was going to stop her from walking across the stage in Savage Arena. Even a nasty fall. Two days before graduation, Betty fell while walking on her outdoor, concrete patio, visibly injuring her face.

So she had to go to commencement with purple blush-like bruises on her cheeks and close to 20 stitches in her nose. But that’s OK, she said. Those will go away. The memories and the degree will last forever.

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