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After a 54-year gap year, a college student, now grandmother, finally finishes

A 75-year-old Virginia woman expects to graduate from William & Mary on Saturday, the same day her granddaughter graduates from the University of Virginia

The Wren building at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. (iStock)

When Elsie Woodward went to ring the bell at the top of the historic Wren Building — a beloved tradition for seniors after finishing their last class at William & Mary — she looked up at the rows of steps and paused.

At 75, balance is an issue for her, and stairs are daunting.

“Getting old sucks,” she said later.

That was part of what motivated her to go back to school: a sense that some people lose their way as they age. “You’ve got to keep using your brain,” she said, and keep tackling new challenges.

On Saturday, she’ll walk through the Wren Building again, this time for her graduation. Her granddaughter Anna Woodward, who will graduate from the University of Virginia on the very same day, plans to join her.

It has been a long climb.

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When Elsie Woodward started her college degree in Miami in 1963, girls weren’t allowed to wear shorts to class. The first Black students were attending the University of Miami. Cubans were coming to the city, fleeing Fidel Castro.

And like many young women at the time, her education got cut short when she fell in love, got married and started a family.

By the time she graduates from William & Mary with a degree in kinesiology, the world will have turned over: The sleepy Florida with empty beaches from her childhood has become one of the most populous states in the country. Her William & Mary classmates laughed when Woodward shared photos from her yearbook on a typical date — the guy dressed up for the basketball game, shaking the girl’s hand at the end of the night — in a class on sexuality in America.

“They thought that was so funny,” she said. “It seemed very sweet, very innocent, compared to what some of these kids talk about in class. You name it, they talked about it.”

After decades of family life, raising children and horses and dogs in Virginia, working at this and that, she had decided she needed more of a challenge.

It was time to end her 54-year gap year.

She applied to William & Mary in fall 2018 despite the challenges — even though she learned her high school transcript, stored in some state office, had long since decayed in the heat and humidity of Florida summers. Even though her diploma was … who knows where. (She finally found it stored away in a box.) She told her husband, a radiologist, and her children that she wouldn’t be accepted.

But she was. The next morning, her son and his wife stopped at the school bookstore and surprised her with a backpack.

She was nervous when she first walked onto campus, not knowing her way. Instead of the immaculate flip hairstyles, wrap skirts and loafers her sorority sisters used to wear to class, many of the students she saw on campus were wearing the shortest of short-shorts.

“I have a thing about respect” for the professors, she said. “Leggings to me, I’m sorry, they still look like underwear.”

Lessons were a bit of a shock as well. She had been writing over the years, so papers were okay. Tests, no.

“I felt for her,” said Ray McCoy, an associate professor of kinesiology and health sciences, watching her sitting in the front of his anatomy class, listening attentively, taking notes and then struggling to remember the terms later. She told him, “It all makes sense. I thought I had it. Then at test time it all goes blank.”

“I understand that,” he said. “You get older, and it doesn’t just stick.”

She struggled with statistics, too, dropping the class one semester, then trying again, successfully, with a new calculator her granddaughter gave her. Her grandson helped her navigate some math and some of the newer technology. Now she prefers making PowerPoints to writing plain old text. She began to enjoy and do well in the classes, regaining the knack for studying and memorization.

She also brought insights to the class that many students didn’t have, McCoy said.

“Whenever I talked about an illness, she’d shake her head like, yes, she knew about it,” McCoy said.

And she stuck with it. “A lot of people would have stopped and said, ‘This is too hard,’ ” he said. “Her tenacity was just wonderful.”

She appreciated when she got on an elevator going to class and realized she was the only White person in the group — a sign that some of the inequities she remembered were changing. She had female professors for the first time. But she missed the wide-ranging debates she used to have in college, when people were more tolerant about different political views than they are now, she said.

After graduation, Anna Woodward thinks her grandma is likely to take more classes — including harpsichord, which she played when she was younger. “I’m excited to see what happens,” she said, adding that it has been inspiring to see it’s never too late to change directions or make big decisions.

Woodward has a lot of plans: She wants to write about aging gracefully, start a mentoring program and help elderly people adopt stray pets. She wants to clean her house after two years of studying.

“People need to constantly try new things, learn things, be tolerant of everybody,” she said. “We need to have a purpose — a reason why we’re doing something.”

After her last class, she faced the stairs up the Wren Building. It had never occurred to her that there might not be an elevator. There was no way to do it with her walker. So she gripped the handrail, turned sideways and began to climb, step by careful step.

After she heaved on the rope, she called her son, elated, holding up the phone so he could listen, too.

“I got to the top,” she said. “I rang that bell.”