Mia Norton donned her deep-green gown, adjusted her mortarboard and lined up among throngs of students at her graduation last weekend.
At age 79, she was the oldest person ever to earn an undergraduate degree from George Mason University.
“My goal was to finish my degree when I turned 80,” said Norton, who lives in Dumfries. It took eight years of George Mason classes and a lifetime of experience, but she beat her goal by a year.
Norton started taking classes at Northern Virginia Community College 40 years ago, when she moved to the United States from Korea at age 39. Her husband, whom she met when he was stationed as an Army soldier in Korea, was transferred to Virginia, and she did not speak any English.
When she won a typing contest at NOVA, she realized how much she loved being in the classroom.
“I was very, very happy. I was so surprised,” she said. “If I continue in school, I will be happy. I want to be happy.”
A busy life — two children, a book club, trumpet lessons, a water volleyball team, and a job in a gardening shop that she eventually bought and ran for about 20 years — put school on a back burner. From time to time, she enrolled in classes at NOVA, focusing on music.
She sang in Italian in NOVA recitals and played small roles in campus productions of “A Doll’s House” and “The Pajama Game.” In 2006, she earned her associate’s degree and started at George Mason.
“I don’t learn right away. I try hard,” she said. “I try 100 times harder than other students because of English.”
She spent hours in George Mason’s tutoring centers. When she enrolled in American history and classical mythology courses, she went to the library to check out children’s books on the topics.
“I saw all the pictures — so interesting!” she said. “I recommend people, when they have a hard time to study, history is the same story in children’s books.”
She majored in theater, but she said her quantitative reasoning class was her favorite.
Autum Casey, one of her professors, praised Norton’s willingness to try out new tasks, such as cutting gels for spotlights for a show.
“She certainly has a different outlook,” Casey said. Once, the class discussed the story of Orpheus, who loves his wife, Eurydice, so deeply that he travels to the Underworld for her, but he is forced to part with her anyway. “Because Mia was married and has been married a long time, she had a different perspective that the other students found interesting because most of them are in their twenties.”
Linda Monson, who taught Norton at NOVA 15 years ago and moved to George Mason shortly before Norton did, said Norton has long had that effect on her younger classmates.
“The number of students that she has inspired along the way, it must number in the hundreds,” she said. “A young student coming in here who’s 20, they cannot give an excuse when they see Mia in here. They can’t say something about how busy I am.”
Monson said she counts herself among those whom Norton has inspired. “She is just an inspiration for learning, an inspiration for the joy of education,” Monson said. “There’s no other external reason for doing this, other than, ‘I want to have fun and to learn.’ . . . What a way to look at life! It’s truly, truly wonderful.”
The university’s president, Angel Cabrera, even mentioned Norton during his speech at the May 17 commencement.
Norton said she can’t think of a better hobby than taking classes. “I want to spend my money a good way. Lot of people, they go gambling, drinking, smoking. What’s that? So I spend money, I pay tuition.”
She isn’t finished. This summer, she plans to enroll in an introductory Italian language class. After that, she might pursue another degree in music.
But for the moment, she gets a short break to rest on her laurels. At her home in Dumfries, graduation-themed decorations adorn the living room and her carefully tended garden. When her husband, Robert, takes her to the Montclair Family Restaurant, where he has leisurely lunches with friends who share his interest in archaeology, he brags, “She’s the highest-educated member of the family.”
The men at the table offer their congratulations. One tells her that he also attended George Mason.
Norton, wearing a George Mason shirt, grins at him. “You are — how do you say, ‘al-loom-bee?’ ”
“Alumni,” Robert corrects her, and she repeats the word.
She appreciates it, the latest lesson in a life devoted to learning — a new word, and one that she can now proudly claim for herself.