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EPOL doctoral student Laura English celebrates 70th birthday

by The College of Education / Jan 3, 2012

When Laura English was a little girl, she didn't exactly know what she wanted to be when she grew up. She does, however, remember that her dad, who never formally studied science but loved to dabble in all things mechanical and read Scientific American, wanted her to be a scientist. Her mom insisted she learn how to type and take shorthand. Although English never learned shorthand, she did master typing. "You will always have a job if you know how to type," English recalls her mother telling her.

English, who turned 70 on December 14, has surpassed typing class by leaps and bounds. In fact, she is a doctoral student in Philosophy of Education in EPOL, and has been enrolled in higher education courses for some part of every decade since the 1960s.

From 1960 through 1985, English earned her bachelor's degree in English and Medieval History from Northern Illinois University. She fondly recalls the start of her college education in the '60s.

"As the '60s approached, you could just sniff the winds of change," she recalled.

"Everyone was so optimistic at the beginning (of the decade) and so devastated at the end," English said. "The world had been turned upside down," she added, referring to the John F. Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement, and the Viet Nam war.

After leaving NIU in 1985, English worked in human resources at Community Consolidated School District 93 and Glenbard High School District 87. Years later–although certainly not in a straight line from point A to point B–English earned her master's degree in 2006 in Liberal Studies from North Central College. She completed coursework with the help of a half-tuition waiver for individuals over the age of 60, an incentive offered by the college.

"My studies focused on ethics, literature, and world culture—virtually from literature of the Norse sagas to medical ethics," English explained. "It was quite a cross-section."

The academic experiences woven throughout her adult life "are reminiscent of many women of my generation," English said. "I started college full of enthusiasm, but dealt with many interruptions, transitioning from co-ed to wife, mother, and working woman; then returning to school to finish what I had started."

After completing her master's, she took several online courses through the Illinois Online Network (ION), a continuing education program founded by the U of I and community colleges throughout the state to train online instructors.

"People are living longer, working longer, and they have more to say, more to do, more to give, and more to learn." 

In 2005, English "retired," but not from the classroom. Faculty from North Central "urged me to apply here," English said. "I said, 'but I'm retired.' But they encouraged me, almost pushed me. I wasn't even thinking about (pursuing a doctoral degree) but I respected their opinions greatly," English recalled.

So English applied, and in 2007 enrolled in the doctoral program in Urbana-Champaign, commuting from the Chicago suburbs for the first year. She attends the U of I with the help of an assistantship in Education Online.

"Laura has been one of my best advisees because she is eager to take challenging courses that enable her to go beyond her current comfort level in philosophy," said Jeanne Connell, assistant professor in EPOL and English's adviser. "She brings a broad background of knowledge and experiences to this stage of her academic career … Laura's positive energy and love of learning are inspirational."

English said her biggest obstacle to being enrolled in a doctoral program later in life bubbled from within. "My biggest challenge has been overcoming feelings of inadequacy I have had my entire life and still do," English said. "I doubt myself and have a panic attack occasionally."

In talking to English face-to-face, you would never detect the inadequacy that sometimes rears its ugly head, but rather a fire and enthusiasm for continuing her own education and for the field of education. Before even sitting down to talk about her educational experiences, English quipped, "Well, the word is out that I am the most energetic student. I'm not sure about the energetic part, but I am enthusiastic.

She said that although faculty, staff, and students have been wonderful to her–adding that she has seen an "incredible change" in the attitudes of younger, more traditional students toward peers their senior– "the admissions process is not as kind to older people, which I have taken the time to critique many times.

"There's a policy atmosphere that exists that is not conducive to older adults returning to school," English said, adding that one of the fastest growing segments in our population is individuals in their 80s. "People are living longer, working longer, and they have more to say, more to do, more to give, and more to learn."

She's also quick to point out that while there are formal groups in place for other minorities at the U of I, there is a big void when it comes to support for older students, adding, "There's nothing for old people other than benign neglect."

A fellow student asked English how she navigated the educational system as a more seasoned student. "I can be very aggressive," English said. "I guess it's the rebel from the '60s in me. I don't like doing it, but I can do it. Complacency doesn't get me anyplace," she said, implying that older students who are not aggressive may get lost, overwhelmed, or bogged down in the educational system.

She said the first year of her doctoral program was the most difficult time of adjustment. "I wasn't sure if I was being accepted, and it took me a year to figure out that I was."

English said her dissertation proposal might include an oral history project with her high school classmates from the class of 1960. "So much has happened in education since high school," English said.

English "wants to select an area of research that will make a substantial contribution in expanding educational opportunities for people of all ages," Connell said.

"Although I should finish in 2013, I am enjoying my coursework, being engaged in class, and my assistantship," English said. "If I stop, people might ask me what I'm going to do when I grow up and I won't know what to say," she added.

Her parents would be proud.