Education 

Great-grandmother, 90, graduates from Northern Illinois University

Few people finish their college education in a retirement facility. But that’s what it took for 90-year-old Joyce DeFauw to complete her bachelor’s degree in General Studies from Northern Illinois University, a milestone nearly seven decades in the making.

DeFauw, a great-grandmother from Geneseo, Illinois, became one of NIU’s oldest graduates in a ceremony Sunday. With the phrase “Super Senior ‘22″ written atop her graduation cap, DeFauw smiled at a cheering crowd as she got up from her wheelchair to walk across the stage, finally reaching a lifelong goal.

“We can never quit learning,” DeFauw said. “If we have the opportunity, and we are given the ability, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t go for it.”

The university also highlighted DeFauw, along with several other graduates, in a special video during the ceremony. In the video, she shared her story and her gratitude for the people who helped along the way. DeFauw was the first to walk out of hundreds of graduates across several colleges.

“I’m very thankful,” she said in the video. “Other people had faith in me, which I didn’t have in myself. But I’m here and got to see it to the bitter end — not bitter, a good end.”

DeFauw fell a few semesters short of graduating from NIU in the early 1950s. At the time, NIU was the Northern Illinois State Teachers College. To make her way through school, she worked at a drugstore near campus and lived with a group of fellow “town girls.”

Joyce DeFauw held onto her original 1951 student identification card and brought it with her when she returned to Northern Illinois University in 2019.

She initially enrolled at the school in 1951 to obtain a teaching degree but changed her major after the first year.

“At the end of my freshman year, I decided that I didn’t know enough to teach, or I didn’t feel I did, so I changed to home economics,” she said. “In the meantime, I took German, typing, bookkeeping.”

She had taken 3½ years’ worth of classes when she met a “good-looking” man, her first husband, Don Freeman Sr., at church.

“My future husband appeared on the scene, and I decided to leave,” she said. “Which I did, and we married and had a family.”

The couple had three children in three years before Freeman died. Five years later, she married her second husband, Roy DeFauw. She had six more children, including two sets of twins. She is now a grandmother to 17 and great-grandmother to 24.

She led a busy life, much of it focused on her kids and grandkids. As she got older, the pace slowed down, she said, especially after needing surgery. DeFauw now resides in a Geneseo retirement community.

“I had to have hip surgery, I moved away from the farm, and now I live in a retirement facility,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of support and encouragement from family, friends and fellow residents here.”

Joanne Wright adjusts flowers for her 90-year-old mother, Joyce DeFauw, before her commencement ceremony at Northern Illinois University on Dec. 11, 2022.
Graduate Joyce DeFauw, 90, waves to family as she is escorted by her granddaughter Jenna Dooley on Dec. 11, 2022.

DeFauw came from humble beginnings, growing up on a farm with her parents and three siblings. But education remained important in her life, and she became the first person in her family to go college. She felt inspired by her mother, who was a teacher.

“Coming from a little home in the country as a child, I have been given so much,” DeFauw said. “I think I admired my mother and wanted to be like her, and she taught school and taught her children good life values, which I’ve tried to pass on to my family.”

Over half a century later, DeFauw’s granddaughter, Jenna Dooley, who teaches in NIU’s journalism department and serves as the news director of Northern Public Radio, said her family felt she was still living with some regret over not finishing her degree. She said her uncle, DeFauw’s oldest son, was first to suggest the idea of going back.

“He was one of the first people to reach out to NIU to say, ‘What would it take to get her re-enrolled?’” Dooley said.

In 2019, with the encouragement of her family, DeFauw headed back to NIU, with her original black-and-white student identification card in hand, to pick up where she left off 68 years ago.

“I must have mentioned that I wish I would have finished, and my family took me up on it and suggested I go back,” she said. “My mobility has gone down with my age, but there’s many things I can do, so why not do it?”

Judy Santacaterina, director of NIU’s General Studies program, said she remembers when she first heard about DeFauw. She thought the receptionist in her office made a mistake when she was told that someone looking to come back to the university had last been there in 1955.

“I was like, I was born in 1955!” Santacaterina said.

She and other university staff dug through decades old records and transcripts to find what she needed to complete her bachelor’s. With her distance from campus, NIU allowed DeFauw to finish a degree in General Studies through online classes.

The university determined she would need 10 courses, or 30 credit hours, to finish. The classes ranged from science to social studies to the humanities. One professor let DeFauw bypass a prerequisite course for a gerontology class due to her age, according to Santacaterina.

Seeing DeFauw become a Huskie again has inspired Santacaterina, who served as her advisor. She now keeps a picture of DeFauw in her office.

“My dad was ill during COVID, and I just, in some ways, thought, how is she doing this?” she said. “But she became very proactive. I think as humble and gracious as she is, she also knows herself, and she’s not afraid to speak her mind.”

While DeFauw had previously taken typing courses, she had never used a computer before returning to NIU. Her family bought her the first one she ever owned.

While adjusting to an entirely new approach to learning, one far different from what she encountered in the ‘50s, she simply took it one step at a time.

“I had to get the computer in order to communicate, and they got it for me,” DeFauw said. “There was so much to learn, but if I learned one thing each day, that’s more than I knew before.”

Already a remote student, Dooley said DeFauw was a step ahead in some ways when the pandemic hit. Dooley also believes the classes were important in keeping DeFauw engaged while she isolated in her room, helping her connect with others.

“I was not able to leave,” DeFauw said. “To be with my fellow students and wonderful instructors, they went just way above and beyond.”

Dooley said her grandmother boasted a lively social life when she in school in the ‘50s. Once she had nine children and an expanded family later on, her life was “always chaos,” with “many people around and things to do.” With age came much more solitude, she said.

“She gets into this kind of final chapter of her life, and it’s really become a quiet space of solitude and reflection,” she said. “It was great that she was able to channel a lot of that into an academic study, and it kept her connected with people and ideas.”

Loved ones have never been too far away though. Dooley said despite how large the family is, almost everyone lives only about 100 to 150 miles away from DeFauw.

Family members often jumped in to help DeFauw with her coursework. She once took a disability in film class and watched movies like “The King’s Speech.”

“My uncle got the films for her,” Dooley said. “I know her and my mom would sit and watch them together. They’d discuss them, and she would write a paper on it.”

To Dooley, the family’s involvement in DeFauw’s education was about paying it forward. She said DeFauw always put her kids and grandkids first.

“That’s why it was like, whatever it takes as a family, we’re gonna figure it out,” she said. “You need a computer? OK. You need help getting connected? OK. You’ve got an assignment, and you’re not sure how to how to do it? Let’s talk it out together. I think that was the family being able to give back to her as well.”

Dooley said she feels proud to see her grandmother fulfill her dream, especially at the university she graduated from herself.

Joyce DeFauw's mortarboard at her graduation ceremony on Dec. 11, 2022, in DeKalb.
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“I always kind of had this higher education journey, and it felt so separate from her life,” Dooley said. “I was actually like a legacy since she had been here already before me. It’s really cool to see.”

While the process came with challenges, some she wasn’t sure she could overcome, DeFauw said the support of her family and friends, as well as the university, helped her push through.

“I know there were times when I wanted to quit, but we were in it together,” she said. “And we came out victorious.”

As many graduations as Santacaterina has attended at NIU, she said this one feels special. Santacaterina helped DeFauw with her graduation accommodations and even showed her how to move the tassel to prepare her for the special day.

“This is her story and letting her have her moment,” Santacaterina said. “It really resonates in terms of a story of human spirit. I’ve just been honored and grateful to be a tiny part of the journey.”

DeFauw didn’t set out to gain attention for her uncommon educational path or to become, as her granddaughter Dooley puts it, “Viral Grandma.” But if she is able to inspire others to never believe it’s too late, that’s more than DeFauw could have imagined when she first started her education all those years ago.

“I’ve heard that I’ve inspired others and if that be so, I am honored and humbled with that,” DeFauw said. “Keep going, just keep going because there’s so much out there.”

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