For new freshmen arriving on campus, college graduation may feel like a lifetime away. For Eleanor “Jean” Kops, it practically has been a whole life’s journey.
At 85, Kops has re-enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is working toward a degree she first started in 1945.
It took some prodding by her family to return to the campus that looks far different than it did during her first time as a student, she said. But she said she is relishing the opportunity to do something she and her late husband, Lyle, had always wanted to do.
“Lyle and I used to talk about how we should have gone back to school, but we never went,” she said. “When I was trying to make up my mind, my daughter said, ‘You know, Mom – Dad would be thrilled to death to know you were going back to school.’
“I think that’s what convinced me – that he would be happy.”
Her daughter, Patricia Collura of Lincoln, said her late father would be her mom’s biggest supporter.
“Education was always very important to them and they made sure that all five of us were able to continue our education,” she said. “Dad would be so proud that she has taken the initiative to pursue her dream.”
Jean and Lyle Kops attended the university after graduating high school in Bassett. Jean, who was then Jean Mavie, decided after two years, in 1947, that she wanted a break. At the time, she was studying secretarial skills, such as shorthand and typing. Back then it was known then as Commercial Arts.
“I was just kind of tired of it,” she said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of choices for women. I was enrolled in the teachers’ college.”
She went back home to Bassett, Neb., and took an office job until she and Lyle married in 1948. They planned to go back to school eventually, but tragedy took their lives down a different path.
“Lyle’s parents were in a terrible accident and his mother broke her neck,” she said. “Lyle was called back to the ranch because his family thought that’s where he ought to be.”
The couple spent the first years of their marriage helping out on the ranch in Rock County, near Bassett, living in a small house without electricity or other modern amenities. That home eventually burned down and the Kopses lost everything.
Looking back, she said that would have been a perfect opportunity to go back to school, but they had a wonderful life on the ranch and were starting a family. So higher education would have to wait a while.
And it was a while. The Kopses spent the next five decades on the ranch; Jean Kops worked alongside her husband and raised five daughters. In between, she was a 4-H leader, a community volunteer and a “pretty good seamstress,” she said.
She found fulfillment in those different roles, but something was always missing.
After her husband’s death in 2011, Kops had a lot of time on her hands. The subject of going back to school came up. Then, after a few more serious conversations with her family, she enrolled in two online courses in January 2012 and learned about two subjects she thought she was already well-versed in: aging and women on the prairie.
After she “aced those two courses,” Kops moved to Lincoln and applied for admission to UNL.
Working with her chief adviser, Lisa Kort-Butler, assistant professor of sociology, she submitted an Individualized Program of Studies proposal, which was approved by the College Curriculum and Advising Committee. She found that a sociology major aligned well with her interests.
“I just decided that a year ago, because I didn’t know what else to major in, and there are so many choices now,” she said.
Despite her success in her online courses, she admits she was uneasy about sitting in a regular classroom among teens and twenty-somethings – but again, her family encouraged her.
“I said ‘I don’t know about being with those young ones,’ and (my daughter) said ‘Mom, they could learn a lot from you,’” Kops said.
And, in fact, Kops does bring a unique perspective to class.
“It’s a different world now,” she said. “It’s interesting hearing kids talk. It’s a lot different than when I went to school. They don’t mind sharing. They’re quite open.”
But she shares, too: She has a bit to say about the topics covered in her current classes, such as Families in Contemporary Societies.
“In class, we were asked to list the three most important characteristics of a marriage,” she said. “I said the first ones, to me, are love and respect. And most of (the other students), they didn’t have that in there. Most of them said finances or kids, but you have to have love and respect if you’re going to make a marriage last.
“I told these guys, when they asked why I got married, I said I really loved him. And I said I loved him until he died. And they act surprised.”
Another of Kops’ daughters, Cheryl Wagoner of Lincoln, said it’s clear her mother has been enjoying the interactions she’s had with fellow students.
“She still gets nervous, but she really enjoys it,” Wagoner said. “She had a lot of kids, grandkids and great-grandkids, so she’s comfortable with that generation.”
Kops will continue a light course load of two or three classes a semester until she graduates. With 81 hours amassed, she hopes to have a degree in hand sometime in 2015. She joked that she hopes she’s still able to walk across the stage when that time comes.
Her family isn’t worried.
“I told her when she graduates, if she can’t make it across the stage, I’ll push her wheelchair,” Wagoner said. “It’s going to be a huge celebration.”
Her family is looking forward to honoring a woman who is still making strides toward a dream that started long ago, was interrupted for decades, and is now coming closer to being fulfilled.
“She has always been and continues to be an inspiration, and a great mentor and teacher to me,” Collura said. “She has set a great example for our family and friends by the way she has taken charge of her life and has set this incredible goal of attaining her college degree.”