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Illinois grandma completes degree from NIU at age 90

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Joyce DeFauw's original student identification card

As a reporter, there was no getting out of this story assignment. That’s because Joyce DeFauw is my grandma. She was my first assignment editor in some ways —teaching me and my cousins how to make homemade breads and pies in an assembly line of fresh ingredients and hard work. As a Sunday School teacher, she always had craft supplies lined up to illustrate that week’s lesson.

Funny she’s always been a teacher, yet officially gave up on that dream a long time ago.

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Joyce Kane DeFauw was part of the bowling team during her college years.

In 1951, she earned a scholarship to attend what was then the Northern Illinois State Teachers College. She was a first-generation college student and felt a lot of pressure to earn that degree and make her father proud.

Near the end of her first stint at college, she decided the teaching profession wasn’t for her and looked to change her major.

When she realized that it would mean she would become a “super senior” — needing an extra year tacked on to her senior year of college — she left and got married to her first husband.

She sure is a “super senior” these days.

At age 90, she’ll walk across the stage in DeKalb in 2022 with a degree in General Studies.

Her family will cheer her on — kids, grandkids and great-grandkids.

It’s the big final act of her educational journey.

But with 90 years of life under her belt, there have been a lot of chapters in between.

After she left NIU in the 1950s, she had three children in her first marriage. Widowed, she married again and had six more children in the span of just four years. If you are trying to calculate that math, I'll let you in on the trick — she had two sets of twins in succession.

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Joyce DeFauw and her nine children

The blended family eventually settled in a farmhouse in rural Geneseo, Illinois. Her second husband died in 1999. She then lived there on her own until she moved to a retirement facility a few years ago.

That’s when the talk about college started up.

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Joyce DeFauw and her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in 2018

After hip surgery, it came to light that she always regretted leaving college and letting her father down.

The question to go back was never really “why” go back to college, it was more “why not?” She had her health, she had time on her hands, and she had her family’s support.

She got her first computer and started remote classes in 2019. That decision became more pivotal when the pandemic struck, and her newfound knowledge of technology connected her with people and ideas in a time of unprecedented isolation.

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Joyce DeFauw visits Altgeld Hall after returning to classes after a decades long hiatus

She plugged away — one class per semester, including summer sessions.

She wasn’t a perfect student — she’ll admit that. At 90, she wasn’t immune to the demands of higher education and the struggle to prioritize it with life happening between classes. She got support, technical and emotional, from family along the way.

Director of Bachelor General Studies Judy Santacaterina also worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make this accomplishment possible. She had to dig DEEP into the transcripts to transfer credits from way back when and identified upper-level classes that would be a strong fit for grandma's goals and interests.

Santacaterina also shepherded her capstone project, a course in autoethnography where my grandma explored a series of prompts to connect her autobiographical story to wider cultural, political and social understanding.

With such support from faculty and family, she did it.

She reflects that maybe her dad would be proud that she earned her degree.

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Joyce DeFauw celebrates with family and friends at an open house on Dec. 4, 2022

I know I sure am proud of her.

At an open house held over the weekend in her hometown of Geneseo, Ill., those who have known her throughout every chapter of her life wished her well ahead of graduation day, jokingly asking questions like "When are you going to start your master's degree" and "Have you started going on job interviews yet?!"

She takes it in stride and credits a lifetime of blessings and good health for this academic fortune.

And her advice for people who take the scenic route to meet their goals?

“I would say just keep pursuing even though it changes. Don't give up. Just go on, even if it was different than what you had planned.”

Even if it means taking a detour of nearly seven decades.

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Jenna Dooley has spent her professional career in public radio. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois - Springfield. She returned to Northern Public Radio in DeKalb after several years hosting Morning Edition at WUIS-FM in Springfield. She is a former "Newsfinder of the Year" from the Illinois Associated Press and recipient of NIU's Donald R. Grubb Journalism Alumni Award. She is an active member of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and an adjunct instructor at NIU.
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