Head Start, Late Finish: Alumna oldest in UTD history

Helen Small began college for the first time in 1938. Seventy years later, she continued her degree at UTD. She graduated in 2010 with her master’s in psychological sciences. She was 90 years old at the time. Photo by Yash Musalgaonkar | Mercury Staff.

Helen Small’s experience at UTD was a decidedly unconventional one.

At her graduation, former president David Daniel held his arm out and walked her across the stage to get her diploma. Her family — which, 29 in number, is decidedly not small — came out to support her in mass.

After graduation, the photographer accidentally mixed up the photo of her accepting her diploma. They called and asked her to describe herself. She told them she wears big glasses and has curly hair.

It was only after she realized she should’ve mentioned her age — 90 years old.

“I knew one day that I was going to go back to school someday and get that degree, because it was an unfulfilled desire of mine to graduate from college,” Small said. “But I didn’t know it was going to take me 70 years to do it.”

It was 1938 at the University of Akron in Ohio. Small was standing in the registration line to begin her college career when she saw a “gorgeous,” 6-foot-4 freshman in front of her — he later became her husband. She soon after dropped out of school to start their family.

Small and her husband owned a home-building business together for 40 years.  After 62 years of marriage, he passed away. Small started at UTD in 2004, mere months after her husband’s passing, and said the university and its community helped keep her afloat.

“After so many years of married life, I was at loose ends,” she said. “Studying and working for degrees was an outlet for energy that I didn’t know what to do with. I’d worked all my life and all of a sudden, here I am like a ship without an anchor. I felt that studying at the university has been a lifesaver for me.”


Listen to an excerpt of Cara Santucci’s interview with Helen Small on The Mercury Morning News on Radio UTD.

Before starting at UTD, however, she took classes at community college to learn how to use a computer. The first time she began college, computers weren’t even invented.

She graduated later from UTD with a bachelor’s in psychology in 2007 before going on to complete her master’s in psychological sciences in 2010.

“Going to the University of Texas at Dallas has been a wonderful experience for me,” she said.  “It’s opened doors that I’ve never ever dreamt of having the opportunity to go through.”

Some of her previous professors have asked her to come to their classes and speak about her experiences. Especially, she said, when the classes were discussing longevity.

“I try to emphasize to them … if your education is interrupted, it doesn’t matter,” Small said. “You can go back anytime at all and continue. … Age is no barrier when it comes to education.”

She said part of what drove her to finally go back and finish her degree was the support of her three sons — all of whom, she said, are doctors.

“They’d call me up and they’d say, ‘What are you doing, mom?’ (I’d say) I was reading a book or watching television,” she said. “(They’d say), ‘Well, why aren’t you studying?’”

When Small’s three sons were in college, she said she’d encourage them never to wait until the last minute to study for exams. However, she was surprised to find herself cramming on more than one occasion when it was her turn at university.

Before she got into the swing of everyday life at UTD, Small said she was worried the other students wouldn’t accept her because of the age difference.

“(The younger people) ended up being so helpful in so many ways,” she said. “They were so accepting of me and I never could get over it. Their friendship meant so much to me at that stage in my life.”

Post-graduation, Small went on to work for the Center for Vital Longevity at UTD.

After falling in her apartment and injuring her back, she had to leave that position to recover. At age 91 and still unready to slow down, Small decided to do volunteer work in the McDermott Library and at Meals on Wheels.

Small will retire at the end of the year. However, she doesn’t plan to just sit around during her retirement.

“I’ll probably take some courses online,” she said. “I’ve got to keep my mind active.”

Small, who would’ve “crawled to class” if that was what she had to do to earn her degree, will turn 97 at the end of this year. Her daughters-in-law suggested she take up knitting or bridge instead to fill her time. She refused.

“I’m saving that for my old age,” she said.

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