Octogenarians get their encore education
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the February issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version, click here.
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
Say “senior” on a college campus and a picture emerges of students distracted by picking out their cap and gown as they study for finals.
But Judith Cobb of Columbus, Ohio, isn’t the typical senior.
The 82-year-old nurse who has retired twice decided that any kind of restful retirement just wasn’t for her. Instead, she barreled forward and returned to college, enrolling in Grand Canyon University’s master’s degree program in Addiction Counseling in May 2018.
It wasn’t the first time she has sought an “encore education.”
“I was always older than the instructors,” Cobb said with a laugh. “I got my bachelor’s degree in ’97 when I was 61, and I was 52 years old when I got my first degree (an associate’s degree).”
Cobb retired from community health nursing in 2005, when she was 69. But rather than downshift, she landed a job with Columbus Public Health, where she worked until 2010.
Not eager to rest on her laurels, Cobb said her ears perked up when one of the sisters in her professional nursing sorority told her one of the local colleges was looking for part-time instructors. She since has taught everything from community nursing to nursing for mental health clinics.
And when the college relayed that it needed “master’s-prepared” nurses, she didn’t hesitate and enrolled at GCU.
“At the beginning, it was crazy. One of my granddaughters got her master’s online. She said, ‘Grandma, you can do it.’ And one of my friends, she helped me,” Cobb said.
GCU’s instructors schooled her in the technology of online learning – something vastly different from the pen-and-paper mode of education just three decades ago. “One of the instructors said it was a learning curve, and I was in that learning curve. But once I got the knack of it …”
Cobb isn’t the only octogenarian seeking a degree at GCU. Three are enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs in Christian Studies, three are working toward master’s degrees (in Professional Counseling, Addiction Counseling and English with an Emphasis in Education), and one is going for the pinnacle: a doctorate of Education in Organizational Leadership.
More on the way
Census data predicts that, by 2030, 1 in 5 U.S. residents will be age 65 and older, which means that many of those older Americans could be eyeing a second go at college.
Like Cobb, 83-year-old Lois Presley of Hatboro, Pa., also doesn’t do slow-and-easy. She was a supervisor for Sears, Roebuck and Company when she retired two decades ago, and in 2011, at age 76, she retired again, this time from her tenure as a school crossing guard after having worked as a school bus driver. She also worked alongside her husband, Jimmy, in the mortgage business they started.
She answered phones part-time for the Hatboro Police Department and was attending classes at Grace Bible College two years ago when a stroke changed her plans. But it didn’t derail her for long. She returned to her studies in September 2018, this time at GCU online, where she’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Christian Studies with an Emphasis in Biblical Studies.
The deaconess at McKinley Memorial Baptist Church is heavily involved with her church’s women’s activities. She once started a women’s Bible study, and she keeps busy teaching Sunday school.
“I wanted to continue to study God’s word,” Presley said of her reason for returning to college in her 80s. “I want to be a speaker to them (young people in the church) and teach them what obedience will do for you.”
The young generation has spoken to Presley, too. Her three children, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren have been “really encouraging me, and the Lord has spared me to be in my right mind. That’s a really big thing. The Lord has spared me to be in my right mind.”
William Capitan of St. Simons Island, Ga., is no stranger to education. The 85-year-old retired from Georgia Southwestern State University as its president in 1995.
“Being a college president is a very demanding job. I thought, ‘It’s going to be nice. I can sit and read whatever I want,’” Capitan said.
But after a while he knew he wanted to do something that, as he put it, “has some application.” So he became a licensed mediator for a time, working in juvenile court.
“I thought a master’s would be a very important asset. If you have somebody around with a little bit of counseling, that might save everybody a little bit of trouble,” said Capitan, seeking a master’s in Professional Counseling. His other degrees, including a doctorate, are in Philosophy.
He wants to earn another master’s “for my own satisfaction,” he said, adding that he hopes to help people who need counseling but might not be able to afford it, such as the elderly.
Capitan is well versed in online education platforms and said GCU’s learning platform is easy to use and accessible. “And I like the attitude of the staff and faculty. I like to pretend I’m alert and clear, but I get a little befuddled and they’re there to help me. The technical assistance is really good.”
Capitan’s children, who are both lawyers, didn’t balk when he decided to return to college in his 80s.
“They’ve been supportive. They expect me, as an educator, to continue educating myself,” he said. “I still have energy. I’m still alive. I’m still very active.”
Cobb said of her grandchildren (and 10 great-grandchildren and a couple of great-great grandchildren), “They think I’m wonderful. They want to be like grandma,” she said.
She tells them, “You’re never too old.”