By Jennifer W. Eisenberg

Events in life must follow a pattern, mustn’t they, or what’s a pattern for? For instance, certain things should be done by the young–like playing with abandon, learning social skills, getting an education–and other things are to be done by those who are older–like entering the workforce, starting a family, traveling far from home. When things are done out of order, however, the results can surprise us. The stories below contain very surprising characters. You’ll encounter men and women who achieved long-held dreams of gaining an education, and they all overcame tough obstacles. The 21 people who are showcased here managed to succeed. By doing so, they offer hope to the rest of us. viral bait w images if possible

Bryan Lowe, 102

The world’s second-oldest university, Cambridge, has awarded a master’s degree to a 102-year-old former student, a whopping 85 years after he began his studies. Lots of things got in the way, such as the student’s service in Britain’s Royal Navy in WWII and his moves to other continents. Mostly though, the student just “never got around to it.” In the end, the reasons didn’t matter. When Bryan Lowe contacted Cambridge in 2016 to see about receiving his MA that he’d begun in 1931, the university was very happy to comply. Now armed with his degree, Lowe is not looking for advancement in his career, but he is glad that he will finally be able to cast a vote in Cambridge’s University Senate elections.  

Doreetha Daniels, 99

A vow–to earn her college diploma before she turned 100–was fulfilled when Doreetha Daniels received her associates degree in social work from College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California, in 2015. At the age of 90, Daniels admitted to becoming bored with her life. Looking around, she saw that her grandchildren were going back to college for advanced degrees so she set her sights on a long-deferred dream. By taking two classes at a time and always sitting in the front, Daniels met the challenge. She even conquered her fear of technology, so much so that playing computer games became a favorite activity.

Nola Ochs, 98

Kansas native Nola Ochs truly understood the meaning of the word “stick-to-it-iveness.” Seventy-seven years after first enrolling in college in 1930, Ochs graduated. She had lived on a farm and had been a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, but she never stopped yearning to finish college. At the age of 98, Ochs earned her diploma, and Guinness World Record holder named her as the oldest college graduate at the time. Princess Cruises hired her as guest lecturer on one of their cruises to the Caribbean. Not done with college yet, Ochs also earned her MA and went on to become a graduate teaching assistant.

Twila Boston, 98

In 2012 when Twila Boston graduated from Utah State University, there were more than 3300 other graduates, but she stood out. For one thing, she used a cane to walk across the stage. Second, she was 98 years old. She was, in fact, the oldest graduate ever at USU. All through her life as a wife, mother, and nurse, she had known that only a few college credits kept her from earning the degree. In the auditorium as she finally received her diploma for a BA in American Studies were family members who had traveled thousands of miles to celebrate with her

Amy Craton, 94

Not every college student can claim that the college president traveled thousands of miles to throw a surprise party for graduation, but Amy Craton of Hawaii can make that boast. At the age of 94 when she earned a BA in Creative Writing and English from Southern New Hampshire University, the president of SNHU showed up with Craton’s family and friends, festive trimmings, and other SNHU-based alumni to celebrate. Because Craton was hard of hearing and confined to a wheelchair, online courses were ideal, and she maintained a 4.0 GPA. The diploma was 54 years in the making, and Craton has plans to earn her master’s.

Phyllis Turner, 94

Like many older college students, Phyllis Mary Turner left school reluctantly at a young age to help with younger brothers and sisters. Her father had just left the family. When Turner returned to school almost sixty years later, she studied anthropology. A research paper she wrote dealt with the anthropological history of her native Australia before Europeans settled there. The cane she used for walking did not slow her progress in her classes, for she earned honors in undergraduate studies and went on to earn her master’s degree in medical science from Adelaide University, becoming at 94 the world’s oldest postgraduate to receive a degree. 

Joyce Lowenstein, 93

A journey that takes one from Miami to New York, then to Wisconsin, Europe, South America, and eventually to Georgia may seem like a long and winding road, but to Joyce Lowenstein the road was a very happy one. For the Miami native, whose family had moved to New York, her next destination was college in Wisconsin where she lived in a frat house because all the young men were off fighting in WWII. Lowenstein left college to marry, and she became an antique dealer, which explained the buying trips abroad. At Georgia State University, she enrolled in art history, using GSU-62’s tuition waivers for seniors. The next move for the 93-year-old college graduate? Classes to become certified as an art appraiser. And everyone who knows her believes she’ll succeed.

Elisabeth Kirby, 93

Elisabeth Kirkby was a trail-blazer, famous in Australia long before she became the country’s oldest college graduate at the age of 93. In WWII she served in the British army. In Malaya, she wrote, produced, and directed for radio and the arts. Moving to Australia, she entered the burgeoning world of television and starred in the country’s long-running soap, Number 96 as Lucy Sutcliffe, as well as taking roles in theater and film. In 1981, she was elected to Australia’s legislative council and was state leader of the Australian Democrats in NSW for 17 years. Only after her political career did Kirkby earn her college degrees: an arts degree in 2006 and her doctorate in 2014.

Cliff Dadson, 93

At the age of 93, Cliff Dadson became Britain’s oldest living college graduate. At 94, he did something that was arguably more daring. He went sky-diving to raise funds for his favorite charity, Action for Kids, which supports those dealing with abuse or neglect and which he has been involved with for more than 30 years. Dadson got used to planes during WWII as an RAF pilot, but skydiving is quite another sort of venture, especially in one’s tenth decade and demonstrates more than the usual dedication to one’s chosen charity. His BA degree in Arts was from Open University.

Leo Plass, 90

For Leo Plass, choosing between $80 a month as a teacher and $150 as a logger was a no-brainer. In the Great Depression, a better paycheck was hard to pass up, so Plass left college. If he’d known he needed only three hours to complete his teaching degree, however, he admitted he might have made a different choice. Many years later–79, to be exact–Plass’s nephew, recognizing his uncle’s rich life history, contacted Eastern Oregon University about the unfinished degree. The college allowed Plass to substitute life experience and his career in carpentry for class credits and awarded him a degree when he was 99 years old.

Bob Dwyer, 90

One doesn’t think of a retirement home as a college residence hall, but in 90-year-old Bob Dwyer’s case the independent living facility on Chicago’s North Side served as his dorm. Each day he joined his fellow students at Northeastern Illinois University and completed the college degree he had originally begun seventy years earlier. A stint in the army, a career in manufacturing, a happy marriage, nine children, twenty-two grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, a few volunteer trips to Spain and Vietnam to teach youngsters–all these filled his life. Dwyer’s diploma from NIU in 2019 was the proverbial cherry atop his many other accomplishments.

Bertie Gladwin, 90

Leaving school at 14 doesn’t mean you don’t get to have a cool job. As a young man, Bertie Gladwin of the United Kingdom didn’t finish secondary education or go to university, but he found lifelong, satisfying work with MI6, British Intelligence. As an electronic engineer, he installed alternative communications systems in British embassies. In his sixties, Gladwin earned two undergraduate degrees, and when he contemplated earning a master’s degree, the field of military intelligence was a natural choice. Taking classes alongside his wife, he wrote his dissertation, a 10,000 word essay, on the role of the special operations executive in WWII. 

Charlie Ball, 89

To the Class of 2012 Arkansas Tech graduates marching alongside Charlie Ball, the bombing of Pearl Harbor was just an event in history books. For Ball, the bombing 71 years before was the reason he had left that school in his freshman year. He served in WWII as a fighter pilot. Afterward he had a family and a business career, taking college courses here and there in his spare time. A TV commercial about Arkansas Tech’s accelerated degree program sparked his interest, and the 89-year-old Ball learned he already had enough credit hours for a Bachelor’s of Professional Studies in Public Relations, becoming the oldest person to graduate from the school.

Mary Fasano, 89

On the day she graduated from college, Mary Fasano used the proverb, “Knowledge is power,” in a speech. The three simple words may have been the guiding force of her life. As a seventh grader, she’d left school to work in a cotton mill, but the pull of an education drew her to return to high school and earn her degree at the age of 71. Then, while simultaneously helping to run her family’s restaurant and catering business, she took one course per semester for seventeen years and managed to complete her college degree at Harvard University, becoming the school’s oldest graduate when she was 89.

Horace Sheffield, 88

Online courses–and a friend from church serving as his tutor–helped Horace Sheffield earn his college degree 60 years after he left school. As a young man he’d accumulated 115 credit hours, but the needs of his family forced him to take a different path. Many years later he learned that seniors could take college courses for free, so he enrolled in Shorter University in Rome, Georgia, working toward a BS in Christian Studies. At the age of 88, Sheffield walked across the stage to receive his diploma. Beside him was his friend and tutor. Sheffield’s only cost was a $200 graduation fee.  

Anne Martindell, 87

When Anne Martindell entered Smith College as a young woman, her life plan of becoming a lawyer didn’t appeal to her father. Soon after, her parents pulled her out of school. Like many women of her generation, she settled into married life. Eventually she served as a state senator and was appointed ambassador to New Zealand and Western Samoa, but thoughts of a college education stayed with her. Smith College’s Ada Comstock Scholar program brought her back, with its focus on older students. Seventy years after entering as a freshman, Martindell graduated at 87 with a degree in American Studies.  

Wally Taibleson, 90

Once Wally Taibleson returned to college in his early seventies, it seemed as if he couldn’t get enough of it. The proof may be in the degrees he racked up: graduation from Cal State University San Marcos in 2002 with a BA in history and MAs in history, literature and writing, and education. The death of his wife caused him to consider dropping out, but a professor persuaded him to continue. Four degrees later, Taibleson was glad he persevered. Grateful to CSUSM, he set up a scholarship fund for high school students and helped establish an endowment for the history department.

Willadene Zedan, 85

Willadene Zedan loved working with Girl Scouts. At the age of 88, she spent four days in the woods of Wisconsin teaching a troop how to survive with not much more than a sleeping bag. Zedan was accustomed to sacrifice and had learned many life skills to pass along. As a teenager, for instance, she had put her college dreams on hold and returned home to help with the family after her mother died. Then at the age of 85, she went back to college to get her degree in theology, becoming the oldest graduate in the history of Marian University. A few days after graduation, she was ready to head out to her new job: assisting a local physician as he made house calls on elderly patients. 

Hazel Soares, 94

At the time Hazel Soares graduated from high school, in the midst of the Great Depression, a college education seemed out of reach. She went on to have a family and be a nurse and an event planner, but she kept dreaming about a college diploma. After retirement, Soares returned to school and earned an associates degree at the age of 85. In 2010, when she was 94, she graduated from Mills College in Oakland, California, with a BA in Art History and was thought to be the second oldest college graduate in the world. With this accomplishment under her belt, Soares began to focus on fulfilling her next dream: becoming a docent in a San Francisco Bay area museum. 

Donzella Washington, 80

As a high school graduate in 1957, Donzella Washington was interested in social work and considered college, but severe stuttering and lack of confidence held her back. After a full life with a family of her own and helping to rear 32 foster children, Washington entered community college at 65. Speech classes helped correct her stuttering and gave her the confidence to go further. First came an associate’s degree. Then at 80, she earned a degree in social work at Alabama A&M –with a 4.0 GPA! But Washington wouldn’t rest on her laurels. She was exploring a master’s program. 

Adolfo Gonzalez, 58

Adolfo isn’t the oldest, but his story is so inspiring we felt it worthy to include as the 21st entry on our list.

To earn his bachelor’s degree at the age of 58, Mexico native Adolfo Gonzalez endured more trials than the usual college student. What sort of trials, one might ask?

For starters, Gonzalez left his home village at the age of 8 to live hours away where he worked and attended school. He dropped out of school at 12 so he could work and send money to his family, because contemplating his mother’s poverty devastated him. At 18, he tried school again but had to drop out when his father died. He worked in the tomato and the celery fields. He paid a human smuggler $20 to lead him north to California where he could earn more for his family. Taking classes when he could, it took him a decade to earn his GED. A counselor advised that he was too old to enter college, and his English wasn’t good enough, anyway. 

A lesser man might have given up, but Gonzalez endured over all his trials. At California State University, Monterey Bay, he found welcoming staff and faculty. His long-ago promise to buy his mother a home became a reality. In 2017, he graduated from Hartnell College with a degree in Spanish, ahead of schedule and with honors. In 2019, he graduated from California State University, Monterey Bay. His next goal became earning a master’s in education and giving back by teaching.

Another trial that hasn’t been covered is perhaps the biggest one of all: Along with English, Gonzalez also had to learn Spanish. The Zapoteco he’d spoken in his native state of Oaxaca is an endangered language. He is now teaching Zapoteco to his grandchildren.

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