Smarty-Pants Woman Susan Banie entered UCBerkley at age 59 and graduated with a BA in English at 61. Check out her story.
It was to have been a festive celebration for my daughter Lia’s graduation from middle school. After the ceremony my husband, two sons, Lia, my mother and I drove to the posh Ritz Carlton Hotel for an elegant dinner. The food and service were impeccable, but something was terribly wrong. I had noticed during the graduation ceremony and throughout dinner that my mother seemed confused and was acting strangely. None of us were prepared for what happened when the waiter brought my mother her dessert. She looked at it for the longest time and then proceeded to cover the entire mass of chocolate mousse with her white cloth napkin and then started to pound the chocolate glob relentlessly with a corner of the tablecloth. It was an absolute mess and we were all stunned! The waiter just looked at our table in amazement and none of us could utter a word.
The next day we consulted a neurologist who gave her some tests and told us that the results clearly pointed to Alzheimer’s disease. In a matter of months my mother’s condition grew worse and she became a mere shadow of her once vibrant and beautiful self. There were days when I had to plead with her that I was indeed her daughter and not some stranger who had broken into her home. I would often leave her house in tears and then just break down uncontrollably in my car before returning home. She had become a stranger to me and I began to dread that my own children would have to go through a similar nightmare with their own mother. It scared me to death.
Although I tried to make things better for my mother, I felt helpless as I watched her succumb to the cruel and debilitating effects of the disease. I began to experience tremendous bouts of anxiety and fear about my own future. Already I had begun to experience “senior moments”—those times when I would purposefully walk into a room and then forget why I was there. Or, when I would try to solve a simple crossword puzzle or basic arithmetic problem and end up leaving most of it blank and unsolved.
Although I feared my own diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, I really needed to find out for myself if my brain was OK. So I decided to enroll in a class at my local community college. It was the summer of 1996. Western Art History seemed like a good fit for me since I always enjoyed visiting art museums and loved to read books about artists and their works.
I may have thought at the time that an art history class would be fairly easy and not pose too much of a challenge for my brain, but the class actually involved a lot of memorization—titles (often in foreign languages), artists’ names, dates and provenances of paintings and sculptures. It turned out to be a real challenge for my brain. The two-hour class was held every weekday morning from 8:00-10:00 a.m. for six weeks. Often as I walked, or sometimes ran to class, I would frantically review my growing stack of flash cards in preparation for one of the frequent quizzes or major tests. During class I took an exorbitant amount of notes and by the end of each class my hand would feel sore and tingly. The extra work just seemed like a necessary part of my brain project.
I earned an A in that class which gave me a tremendous boost of confidence and helped to ease some of the fears I had about the effectiveness of my brain. I promptly signed up for two more classes that Fall and by the Spring of 1998 had completed eleven classes. All the while I tried to help my mother as best as I could in her struggle with Alzheimer’s, but the helplessness I felt was almost too much to endure. The classes were my one salvation. They were like a refuge from the madness and somehow kept me relatively sane throughout the ordeal. I clearly would have lost my mind if it had not been for school.
When I look back at my life I can see now that I started out with a great appreciation for school. At the age of three I could barely contain myself because I wanted to start school so badly. My sister was already in the third grade and she always came home from school with such wonderful stories about field trips, art classes and recess. Her homework looked like so much fun and I was very envious. So I began to pretend that I was already in school and practiced my A-B-C’s on an easel blackboard that my parents had given me for Christmas. It felt like serious homework, and I could hardly wait for my sister to get home from school so that I could show her my day’s work.
By the time I entered kindergarten I was already well versed in the alphabet and was able to read quite a few words. I was an eager learner and embraced every subject with great curiosity and enthusiasm. By the time I was in junior high school I had amassed an impressive collection of Honors report cards and was clearly a student who was destined to go to college.
But Life doesn’t always follow a straight line and my world was turned upside down when I was twelve years old. I came home from school one day to find that my father had packed all his belongings and was gone. Six months went by before I saw him again and by that time he was consumed with guilt and remorse—alcohol and another woman had replaced his family. He was convinced that he had ruined my life and told me so every time we would get together. Being so young and vulnerable I accepted that pronouncement as fact.
After the divorce, my mother and I were forced out of our beautiful home and throughout my high school years we moved from one small apartment to another. I was a latchkey kid and spent a lot of time alone. It was so hard to concentrate on studies during those difficult years and I began to find all kinds of excuses for not going to school at all. It just did not seem to matter whether I succeeded or failed.
My mother was completely overwhelmed in her new role as a single working parent and was unable to cope with my school problems. In her frustration, she would often yell at me “I can hardly wait until you finish high school and get a damn job!” My counselor at school basically gave me the same advice and suggested that I take secretarial courses. He insisted that there was no need to take college prep courses since I was clearly not a candidate for college.
It was a miracle that I even graduated from high school since I had taken so many unauthorized absences and was threatened with expulsion just weeks before graduation. Fortunately the principal spared me and I graduated in June of 1964. Without skipping a beat I began to work two days after the graduation ceremony as a private secretary. I was well prepared for the job since the only courses I did well at in high school were typing, shorthand, and comptometer (a 60’s version of the ancient abacus).
I remained at my job as a secretary after I got married in 1971 and started a family. It was not easy juggling babies, work and home. When my daughter Lia was born in 1981 I decided to leave my job and devote more time to my three children and their education. Lia and her brother David are both graduates of the University of California and their brother Adam is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. I was so inspired by each of them and secretly yearned for a graduation ceremony of my own.
I began to realize after my mother’s death in 1998 that my own love for learning far outweighed any fears I had about the state of my brain. So I just continued to take random classes at City College of San Francisco. I probably would still be taking classes there today had it not been for a very special English teacher. I was first introduced to Leslie Simon when I took her Women and Literature class in 1997. She really liked my work in that class and tried to persuade me that I needed to be at UC Berkeley. At first I just disregarded her advice because it sounded so far-fetched. But when I took a second class with her a year later, she was quite adamant and persuasive.
I went directly to the Transfer Office at City and brought home an application packet for the University of California. The reality was that I needed to complete quite a few required courses since many of the classes I had taken over the years did not count towards the IGETC (Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum) requirements. So I started to take UC equivalent courses and worked my butt off in order to satisfy the university requirements. I was able to maintain a near-perfect GPA and my application was submitted to the University of California, Berkeley on November 5, 2005. There was an agonizingly long five-month wait before I would find out if my application had been accepted or not.
On May 2, 2006 I received a large envelope from the UC Berkeley admissions office containing the announcement that I had been accepted to Cal. I was shaking and couldn’t believe what I was reading. It took a while before it all began to sink in but as the days went by I began to obsess about whether I could actually do it. After all, I was 59 years old! Did I have the physical energy to take four classes at a time? Would I be able to handle the BART commute from San Francisco to Berkeley? Would I be able to relate to the young students in my classes? Would I have to lose my entire retirement account to pay for tuition? These were just some of the questions I began to ask.
And yet, just when I began to think that maybe it was all too much for me to handle, I received an e-mail from UC Berkeley with another announcement—I had been awarded the University’s most prestigious Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholarship. This time I was just plain stunned and thought the e-mail was a joke! The next day another large packet from UC Berkeley arrived and it indeed confirmed that I was a recipient of the award. I was asked to immediately sign and return the formal contract that outlined the benefits and my responsibilities for maintaining the scholarship. At that point I knew without question that I was destined to go to UC Berkeley and would do whatever it took to succeed!
On May 18, 2008 I received my Bachelor of Arts Degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley at the age of 61. The ceremony in the Greek Theater was an experience that I will never forget and I am so grateful that I was able to make my family so proud. The two years that I spent at Cal were like a dream and were absolutely amazing. While the days on campus were long and often grueling (and there were times when I had to eat some humble pie), my academic journey was and continues to be such an awesome and gratifying adventure. I am convinced that for today my brain is OK and I am on a quest to find new and exciting ways to continue this journey. There are so many outlets out there now for learners of all ages and I am super stoked about the possibilities!