Student, 87, earns UNL degree after 68-year hiatus

Student, 87, earns UNL degree after 68-year hiatus

Jean Kops talks with students in a class during her junior year at UNL. Kops will graduate from UNL during commencement exercises on Aug. 15.
Craig Chandler | University Communications
Eleanor "Jean" Kops talks with students in a class during her junior year at UNL. Kops will graduate from UNL during commencement exercises on Aug. 15.

Her cap and gown are ready to go and the party invitations have been sent. She’s made an appointment with her hairstylist to see how she could wear her mortarboard so that the flash of purple in her hair will show.

Jean Kops is really looking forward to her University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduation this weekend, and it’s no wonder. She’s been waiting 68 years.

In 1947, Kops – then known as Jean Mavie – was majoring in Commercial Arts in the NU Teacher’s College. She’d put in two years of study, but eventually decided to leave college life behind. A year later, she married Lyle Kops in her hometown of Bassett, Neb.

“For majors, there just wasn’t a whole lot of choice for women and I think that’s why I got tired of school,” Kops, now 87, said. “I don’t think I ever really wanted to teach.”

Together, the Kopses raised five daughters on a ranch near Bassett. Life was good, but they often talked about going back to college and finishing their degrees.

When Lyle Kops died following an illness in 2011, Jean Kops began to wonder: Maybe now was a good time to accomplish that lifelong goal.

Her family was resounding in their support and encouragement, and Kops enrolled in a pair of online courses. She got A’s. It was a shot of confidence, so she moved to Lincoln to attend classes, in person, in Individualized Program of Studies.

At first, she was nervous to sit in classes with fellow students who were teenagers and twentysomethings. But as Kops completed more courses, her daughter, Cheryl Wagoner of Lincoln, noticed a change in her mom.

“Mom is healthier than she has been in many years since my dad first became ill,” she said. “I know she was very nervous when she first started back and was worried what the other students would think, but the more classes she took, the more she enjoyed not only the interactions with the other students and professors, but the actual process of learning.”

Kops loved going to class – history, sociology, and other courses – but there were moments of self-doubt when she’d get up and wonder if she still really wanted to pursue a UNL degree. Especially when she faced the subject of science.

“I had to have a lab and [entomology] is what I took, but I think any lab would have been difficult,” she said. “I didn’t mind handling the bugs and at the end she had some that we could eat and I tried everything. Identifying the species names and the class they were in. That was hard.”

Her entomology class was her worst grade. Still, she persevered: “I did a lot better this time around than I did in the ’40s,” she said.

Wagoner said her mother didn’t brag about her grades, but was clearly proud of each accomplishment – such as giving a PowerPoint presentation or writing an A paper – and her family is enormously proud of her.

“Growing up, we were taught to work hard and we could do and achieve whatever we wanted,” Wagoner said. “Mom and Dad always encouraged us to do our best and never quit.

“Mom portrayed exactly what we were taught and what I still strive to live by. I feel immense pride in her ability and willingness to even start, and then finish.”

And Kops made sure to finish. She said she could see the end in sight about a year ago and decided to take a relatively heavy load of three courses this summer.

“I didn’t have time for much else, but I wanted to get done,” she said.

Accomplishing her goal has been bittersweet, though.

“It’s kind of a mixture of feelings,” Kops said. “There is relief, but I felt kind of sad, too, knowing I won’t be going back.”

On Aug. 15, she’ll walk across the stage at Pinnacle Bank Arena and receive her bachelor of arts degree to the cheers of family and friends. But unlike other graduates, she won’t have the pressure of figuring out what’s next or sending out resumes.

Instead, Kops said she plans to travel, see family and start reading for pleasure again – something she hasn’t found as much time for in her time as a student.

But first, she’s going to celebrate. Then she’s going to hang her new UNL degree on the wall.

“That’s probably what I’ll do: sit and look at my degree,” she joked.