71 years after starting college, this 90-year-old woman graduated


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

Joyce DeFauw, then Joyce Viola Kane, began her freshman year at Northern Illinois University in 1951 with plans to earn a degree in home economics.

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

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

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

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

Over the years, her family has grown 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 kids encouraged me to go back,” she said. So she enrolled in Northern Illinois and started taking classes.

Jenna Dooley, one of DeFauw’s 17 grandchildren and an alumnus of NIU, told CNN it was more “why not” than “why” when DeFauw decided to go back.

Dooley said when she was growing up, she visited her grandmother at her farm where DeFauw always cooked or baked.

DeFauw was also a Sunday school teacher. “She always had this love of teaching and learning,” Dooley said.

“When we phoned the school about a previous enrollment, they were shocked to learn we were talking about a 50s student,” 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 nursing home.

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

Senior photograph of Joyce DeFauw from 1955, left, and when she visited campus in August 2022.

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

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

She was alone during this time and couldn’t have any visitors, Dooley said. “Sometimes she was frustrated, but I kept reminding her that it was all part of the process.” She added.

“Sometimes I wanted to quit, but I didn’t.” DeFauw said. She said she received a lot of encouragement from her family, friends and school.

The director of general undergraduate studies, Judy Santacaterina, was a big help for DeFauw. Dooley said she took on the role of helping her grandmother graduate and the whole family is grateful to Santacaterina.

DeFauw took a course every semester, including during the summer. “She’s very organized,” Dooley said, “She has a routine. She wanted to continue taking classes so as not to get out of this routine.

Now, three years later, she’ll put on the cap and gown and receive a bachelor’s degree in general studies from the university this weekend.

DeFauw is grateful to have had the opportunity to return to school and graduate. “It’s nice to finish something you started,” she said.

Her advice to those who might 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 knack for learning and teaching, so being able to celebrate that with joy is the icing on the cake.” Doley said.


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