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71 years after starting college, a 90-year-old woman is graduating

By Sara Smart, CNN

A 90-year-old woman will finally walk across the stage and receive her diploma, 71 years after she first enrolled in college.

Joyce DeFauw, then Joyce Viola Kane, started her freshman year at Northern Illinois University in 1951 with a plan to graduate with a degree in home economics.

But those plans changed when DeFauw met a special man at church who stole her heart, she told CNN Thursday.

“I went to school for three and a half years, but decided to leave after I met him.” DeFauw said.

The special man was Don Freeman Sr. The two got married in 1955, and had three children together before Freeman passed away, leaving her widowed for about five years.

DeFauw eventually got remarried to her late second husband, Roy DeFauw. Together they had six children, including two sets of twins.

Throughout the years her family grew, and she now has 17 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren.

Flash forward to 2019 when DeFauw showed interest in the college education she left behind.

“I guess I mentioned I was upset that I didn’t finish school and my children encouraged me to go back,” she said, so she enrolled back at Northern Illinois and began taking classes.

Jenna Dooley, one of DeFauw’s 17 grandchildren and an alumnus of NIU, told CNN it was more about the ‘why not’ versus the ‘why’, when DeFauw decided to go back.

Dooley said when she was growing up she’d visit her grandmother in her farmhouse where DeFauw would always be baking or cooking.

DeFauw used to be a Sunday school teacher as well. “She’s always had that love of teaching and learning,” Dooley said.

“When we made calls to the school about a previous enrollment, they were shocked to hear we were asking about a student from the 50s,” Dooley said.

But this time around, things were much different for DeFauw.

Instead of walking to campus to attend class, she did so behind a computer screen from her retirement home.

“It was my first computer,” DeFauw said, “My children had to teach me how to use it.”

Dooley added her uncle Don, DeFauw’s oldest son, helped set up the computer, get a camera for the computer and taught her how to navigate her school email.

When the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020, she was thankful for the computer, Dooley said. “It worked out really well that she was already set up online,” She added.

She was on her own during that time and could have no visitors, Dooley said. “At times she’d get frustrated, but I kept reminding her that this was all a part of the process.” She added.

“At times I wanted to quit, but I didn’t.” DeFauw said. She said she had plenty of encouragement from family, friends and the school.

Director of Bachelor General Studies, Judy Santacaterina, was a huge help for DeFauw. Dooley said she took on the role of helping her grandmother get her degree and the entire family is grateful for Santacaterina.

DeFauw took one class each semester, including during the summer. “She’s very organized,” Dooley said, “She has a routine. She wanted to keep taking classes so she wouldn’t fall out of that routine.”

Now, three years later, she’ll put on the cap and gown and receive a Bachelor of General Studies degree from the university this weekend.

DeFauw is thankful she had the opportunity to get to go back to school and get her degree. “It’s nice to finish something you started,” she said.

Her piece of advice to those who may be in a similar situation: “Don’t give up,” she said, “I know it can be difficult, but everything in life has its ups and downs.”

“She has a gift of learning and teaching, so to be able to celebrate this with joy is the icing on the cake.” Dooley said.

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