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2010 May 31 - 12:00 am

STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: Age Is No Barrier as Kansas Student Earns Master’s Degree at Age 98

HAYS, Kan. (AP) — Age is just a number to Nola Ochs. Prior to enrolling in classes at Fort Hays State University, she celebrated birthdays, but never talked about her age. Then, in 2007, word got out that a 95-year-old woman was about to set a world record as the oldest college graduate.

AP Photo/Hays Daily News, Fred Hunt

In this 2007 file photo, former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, left, presents Nola Ochs, center, with a specially modified Guinness Book of World Records as Nola’s granddaughter and fellow graduate Alexandra Ochs looks on. Nola Ochs, who started her academic career at a community college, recently received her master’s degree at age 98.


“Ever since that, I’m aware of my age and enjoying it,” Ochs said with a laugh. “That’s what makes me famous.”

The spotlight recently turned on Ochs again as she graduated from FHSU with a master’s degree in liberal studies with a history concentration — at the age of 98.

“I’m not doing anything but what a lot of people have done, except I’m old,” she said. said.

Ochs was born Nov. 22, 1911, in Illinois. Her family later moved to Nebraska, then Jetmore, Kansas, where she has made her home since high school.

She took community college classes before enrolling in on-campus classes at FHSU in 2006. She finished up a bachelor’s degree in general studies in 2007. At the time, she was the world’s oldest graduate.

A 96-year-old Taiwanese man broke that record last year by receiving a master’s degree, but Ochs already has begun the paperwork to reclaim her record.

Since receiving her bachelor’s degree, she has continued learning — most recently, about piracy.

“There was something on the news about a ship being held captive,” Ochs said. “That was hard for me to believe that was happening today. It caught my attention.”

At first, history department chairman Raymond Wilson was skeptical of the topic for Ochs’ presentation for Research and Creative Activities Week at FHSU.

“She brought me on board, and she just did a super job,” Wilson said.

He said Ochs has proved to be a valuable resource in his classes, sharing her own experiences with her younger classmates.

“She’s just remarkable in what she can do,” Wilson said. “We just hope that things work out that she can continue going to school, taking history classes and being effective.”

And that’s fully what she intends to do.

Graduate teaching assistantships could be available in the spring 2011 semester in the history department and Ochs, who would be working on a master’s degree in history then, intends to apply.

“That gives me incentive to do more,” Ochs said. “I don’t know what I would do at home that would give me the same pleasure.”

Getting up to go to class or work on an assignment are the joys in Ochs’ life. That probably makes her different from the average college student, but otherwise, she thinks she’s just another face in the crowd.

Her name, though, carries weight at FHSU.

“You’ll go into a class, and they’ll recognize the name ‘Ochs,’” freshman Janae Ochs said. “And they’ll ask, ‘Are you related to the oldest graduate here?’”

Janae’s answer to that is “yes.” She went to school with her great-grandmother this year. Nola Ochs also attended school and graduated with her granddaughter, Alexandra, in 2007.

“I think it’s good for her,” Janae Ochs said of her great-grandmother’s continued learning. “It keeps her mind young, and she loves to learn. Our family all looks up to her.”

As do the friends Nola Ochs has made since coming to Hays.

“In the years that I’ve known her, I never dispute anything she tells me because she’s always right,” said Phyllis Kellerman, who met Ochs while attending First United Methodist Church in Hays.

Kellerman said Ochs’ memory and mind are fascinating because of her desire to continue learning.

“She’s such a neat person because she’s so interested in education,” said Virginia Lehman, another church friend.

With another degree under her belt, Ochs said she will continue that education by taking a “History of Ideas” class this summer.

“I give thanks that the Lord allows me to be as active as I am and participate and do the things I do,” Ochs said. “And maybe come back next fall, take a class, and by chance I might work as an assistant to those professors that have been so good to me.

“That would be the climax to my story.”

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

Also from GAYLE WEBER, The Hays Daily News

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