Never too late to learn: At 82, Patricia Geis earns associate degree

Patricia Geis recently turned 82 years old, and on commencement day, May 10, 2014, wearing a cap and gown for the very first time, she was among Penn State Altoona's fresh-faced graduates, having earned her associate degree in Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Geis dropped out of school when she was 15 to get married and raise a family, which included five children. She now has nine grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren.

Originally from Gallitzin, Pa., Geis remembers being on the Altoona campus grounds back when it was the Ivyside Amusement Park, and then when it became a college, bringing her children to walk around and play. Once her children were grown and began moving away for work and to start families of their own, Geis said she started feeling a little bored. So, at 75, she enrolled in two classes through the Go 60 program for something to do. She chose a human development course and a creative writing course.

“I had no intention of getting a degree, I was just coming to classes for fun, classes that were interesting to me and that I wanted to take. I really enjoyed it.”

She said others talked her into fulfilling the requirements of an associate degree. She was already up to nearly 70 credits; she just needed to take two sciences, an art, and the most challenging of all for her, a math course. She managed to complete and pass that math class this semester. “I struggled, that’s for sure, but at least it was interesting, and I liked the teacher,” she said.

Geis’ favorite classes are the ones relating to human development and family studies and the different stages of life.

“After all, I’ve pretty much been through them all, expect my own death, of course,” she joked. Geis really enjoys being on campus and around traditional-aged college students. “When I’m here, I’m not at home looking in the mirror seeing how old I really am. I don’t see my wrinkles so I can think, ‘Hey, I’m one of them’!”

One of her favorite stories to tell of her young classmates is the time she mentioned Herbert Hoover was president when she was born. She was thinking they would ask who that was, instead she was told, “Ma’am, we knew you were old, but we didn’t know you were older than dirt!” Re-telling the story, Geis chuckles, “You just have to love their honesty.” She has made a lot of friends on campus and is thrilled by the kindness of faculty and staff.

Geis said she’s excited about completing her degree and receiving a diploma, but it’s not exactly enough to satisfy her. “I really want that degree in Human Development and Family Studies, so that’s what I’m going to try to get now.” She plans to travel and visit family in early summer, take a class in late summer, then enroll in the fall semester with one course. She said a degree in HDFS would help her find a job at Head Start or another similar organization, and she would love that.

Geis’s life, like anyone’s, has dealt her some painful blows. Two of her children have passed away and she later had to quit her job to care for another daughter with serious health issues. When her husband of 64 years died in 2011, Geis says she went to bed for nine months. “You lose part of your identity; you’re not one person when you’re married that long. I thought, ‘who am I?’ I was always just Bill’s wife, but who am I, so that’s what I tried to find out. And I think that I did.”

Continuing her education and earning her associate’s degree has been a large part of her self-discovery. Through her classes and finding her voice and identity, Geis says she’s learned she has a whole lot of opinions about things and that she’d like to make a difference in the world. She feels strongly about tackling corporate greed and about environmental issues. She’d like to see college students and young graduates around the world work together to take on challenges.

“I feel good about myself. I mean, I’m glad if I’m an inspiration to someone else. But everyone has to be their own role model in the end. You can have somebody to look up to, but if you don’t do anything for yourself or to better yourself, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good.”

Last Updated May 15, 2014