Non-traditional student finishing what she started

Determination knows no age. Meet Judy Butler Jones, undergraduate student at Northern Kentucky University.

At age 69, with an hour and a half drive round trip to school each day from Warsaw, Ky., she plans to earn her undergraduate degree by taking two classes at a time, she said.

“It’s part of my life that’s unfinished,” Jones said. “When I was a kid in school, a little kid in third grade, the report card came home and it said I didn’t complete what I began. I make a point of finishing whatever I start. I have not finished this (undergraduate degree), and I want to do it.”

Jones graduated from Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati a year early, at age 17. After that, she said, she attended Lord-Belmont Junior College in Nashville, Tenn. She said she majored in physical education because it was the only school she found that offered classes in horsemanship. She took a course which offered a certificate to teach horseback riding, and she taught students on the horses she owned.

“I was happy going to Lord-Belmont,” Jones said. “I was happy in my classes, I liked every one of them. I learned so much.”

At 18, Jones married. Lord-Belmont changed ownership and became a four-year Baptist college, she said, so she left school after studying for one year.

“The dumbest thing I ever did was get married, because then I quit school,” Jones said. “If I had it to do all over, I would not get married until long after I was out of school.”

Soon afterward, she had two sons. She said she worked as a full-time mother until they were grown. She thought about finishing her undergraduate degree, but the idea didn’t sit well with her husband, she said.

“He never wanted me to back to school,” Jones said. “Every time I tried to go back, he did not like it. And I had a sneaking suspicion he was always afraid that if I got my degree and got a good job, I’d divorce him.”

Jones has worked different jobs during her lifetime, ranging from owning a bookstore to running the GED program in Gallatin County, she said.

At Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Fairborn, Ohio, she worked alongside highly educated people in the technical library for three years, she said.

“Everybody who came into the library had at least one degree,” she said. “Most of them had a lot more. There were a lot of Ph.D.’s doing work there for the government.”

And Jones is part of an educated family. Her husband and mother both earned bachelor’s degrees from Cincinnati College of Pharmacy, she said. Her mother also earned a master’s degree in library science from the University of Kentucky.

One of her sons earned a bachelor’s degree in medical communications from Ohio State University, she said. Her other son earned a bachelor’s degree at Wright State University and is a computer specialist, she said.

So, Jones said, it wasn’t a hard decision to go back to school. It was an idea long in the making, she said, and it was one of those things she made up her mind to do after she retired.

With her life experience, she said, school is easier now than it was straight out of high school. For example, now she gets along better with her teachers.

“When I was 18, I was scared to death of them,” she said. “Well, I’m not afraid of them now. Most of them are young enough that I could have changed their diapers.”

Nicholas Bonner, foundations coordinator, at age 42, is an example. He taught Jones in his concepts in art class.

“I really enjoy having nontraditional students in my classes because they have different perspectives,” Bonner said. “People who have been around for a long time have seen a lot of things happen and change in our society. Their perspectives are very important.”

He said he enjoyed teaching Jones because she made herself noticeable among 60 or so students.

“She had great things to say. She always participated in class,” Bonner said. “She had a totally different perspective and really presented some great questions.”

Robert Wilcox, associate professor of history, taught Jones in his world civilizations class.

He also said he enjoys teaching nontraditional students and said they are a gift to the class. They add to the flavor of the whole learning experience with perspective from life experience, he said.

“Judy has been watching the world very closely for a longtime,” Wilcox said. “She’s seen the changes and she’s seen how things haven’t changed. She can bring that to bear in personal anecdotes or experiences she has had over a longer period of time.”

He liked the feedback Jones gave him, he said, because she expanded the discussions with aspects he and other students possibly hadn’t thought about. He said she is motivated and has a tremendous sense of humor.

And motivation is key, Jones said, because there is one thing that doesn’t get better with age.

“Find it more difficult to memorize than it was when I was 18,” Jones said. “That’s hard, but, I’m surprised at how much I do know. I only take a couple courses at a time. I can’t do any more than that. I took three last semester, and it pushed me.”

On the flip side, she said, she is comfortable with herself, and she hasn’t felt negative attitudes toward her.

“I don’t feel strange at all,” Jones said. “Everyone has been nice to me.”

What is difficult for her, like many other college students, in deciding on a major.

“The point is to get a degree,” Judy said. “Never mind what it is in.”

Years ago, she began teaching herself art through reading books, she said. First she drew, and then she painted. She displayed her paintings in the Darke County Fair in Ohio.

She said, “One day I went to pick up my stuff, and there was something taped to the back of it. I said, ‘What’s this?’ And the lady said, ‘Somebody wants to buy your painting.’ I was thrilled to death.”

After that, she laid down her brush for a while. But, she kept her supplies and had 38 tubes of paint when she came to NKU.

She said she also brought credit from her previous school, Lord-Belmont Junior College. Now she is taking classes and earning non-traditional credit through writing portfolios about what she has learned through life experience.

Her quest for knowledge continues. At the end of the rainbow is something worth more than a pot of gold. And Jones said she is determined to get there, to finish what she has started.

“I’ve learned a lot,” she said, “but there is a lot more to learn. There’s always something to learn because you never know it all.”