90-year-old Geneseo woman gets college degree

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It is not uncommon for college students to take a gap year from their college studies.

However, a 70-year gap is quite rare.

Joyce DeFauw enrolled in 1951 at what is now Northern Illinois University, taking 1954 as a sabbatical, which is a break from her studies. But it lasted much longer.

Despite a seven-decade hiatus, DeFauw will earn his diploma from NIU this weekend, at the age of 90.

“They (NIU) had wonderful instructors. I had wonderful family support and incredible encouragement from people,” he said. “So now I’m at this point where it’s all about to end.”

DeFauw said she “can’t imagine” her feelings when she finally crosses the graduation stage and has her college diploma in hand.

“I would love to be able to jump and shout and say thank you. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun, unless I cry,” she said with a laugh.

When DeFauw enrolled at NIU, the school was known as Northern Illinois State Teachers College.

“I was the first in my family to go to college,” she said. “My parents were very supportive. They brought me from my hometown. I had access to a scholarship, which was not used by other members of my class.”

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He started out as an early elementary school student, but switched to home economics after his first year. About a semester before earning his degree, DeFauw’s educational journey took a turn.

“There was a man in my church who caught my eye and apparently I caught his eye,” he said. “So, we decided to get married.”

She had three children with her husband before he died unexpectedly. Five years after her death, DeFauw remarried and had six more children.

“So with the big family and all that, I was busy until he passed away,” she said.

In addition to raising all those children, he helped run his family’s farm, taught Sunday school classes, and bowled in the leagues.

“When the kids grew up and had families of their own, some of my kids said ‘Why don’t you go back to school?'” DeFauw said.

With the support of her family, she decided to return to NIU in 2019. Her children bought her first computer, allowing her to finish her degree online from her retirement home.

“I took one course every semester, just one, and I was done,” he said. “Now I’m almost done.”

When asked what was the biggest difference in education from his early years to his later years, DeFauw’s answer was easy.

“One word: technology,” he said. “My grandchildren and great-grandchildren are much more educated or know more about the subject than I am. I know a very minimal and limited amount.”

But she is grateful for his new interest in and use of technology.

“I use it every day, and it’s not necessarily for school but for other things,” he said. “I have a son who learned a lot with computers and it was a great help.”

Jeanne Mirocha, one of DeFauw’s daughters, said she was initially surprised that her mother took the initiative to return to college.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. I could never do this,'” Mirocha said. “But as a kid, you always think your parents can do anything, and she’s showing it.”

Mirocha said it’s amazing to see her mom, after being separated from college for so many years, sharing her experiences with other students for homework.

“In most cases, it was her who was speaking in terms of memories and they (the students) were speaking in terms of history,” she said. “Most people never get a chance to experience another classmate like that.”

Recognizing how the phrase “you’re never too old” is often used in conversation, Mirocha looks to her mother as a real-life example.

“They were able to find their transcripts from many years ago. They had to do some digging, but they found them,” he said, adding that no hurdle was too big. “You can do it no matter what, if you really want to. And she did.

“We are very proud to know that she is our mother and that she was able to see this through from start to finish.”

Aside from the constant support of his family, DeFauw felt self-motivated to complete his degree.

“You would like to leave things finished, not half done,” he said. “So I think that’s the satisfaction I’ll have. Not that I did it, but they gave me the ability and the opportunity to do it.”

Reflecting on her journey as a whole, DeFauw said she will always cherish the memories she’s made and the people who have encouraged her along the way. For those who have strayed from their college degrees and may be looking to go back to school, she shared her biggest takeaway from her non-traditional path:

“Keep learning,” DeFauw said. “You never know what you can do. I never dreamed I could do this. They gave me the skill, the time and the equipment. But otherwise, just keep learning and hang in there.”