Keeping it old school: A very nontraditional student reflects on the life lessons she’s learned

See below for an article on Honors Graduate JoAnne Potter published by Sarah Vickery in the College of Letters & Science’s “In Focus” March 4, 2024.

Philosophy major JoAnne Potter is earning her bachelor’s degree 55 years after she first started. Photo by Sarah Vickery.

JoAnne Potter is 72 years old. That makes her among a very small group of older seniors working on a bachelor’s degree at UWM, and almost certainly the oldest student ever in the Honors College. She’s set to graduate in May with her Bachelor’s degree, 55 years after she first began college.

Though she’s learning from her UWM professors, Potter has plenty of her own wisdom to share. Here are some of the life lesson’s she’s picked up along the way.

1. It’s never too late to finish what you started.

Potter began her college career in 1969. She entered UWM without much of a vision. After a year that went “relatively poorly,” she decided that perhaps college wasn’t for her.

Instead, she moved to Illinois and went to work for a small steel manufacturer as a secretary. She eventually worked her way up to become one of its vice presidents, but, “I had a hard time rising through the ranks without a degree,” Potter said. “Nothing specifically held me back, but I think it wouldn’t have taken as long (with a degree).”

After 14 years in the corporate world, she and her husband retreated to Richland Center, Wisconsin, where they built up a small hobby farm. Potter took on jobs as a freelance writer and even worked for a friend’s public relations firm, but her true joy was in teaching at a small private school. She found that she loved educating young minds.

“I realized that that’s primarily my vocation, and has been for a really long time,” Potter said. “But I couldn’t exercise it because I didn’t have the degree to do it.”

She did take classes here and there when she could – Potter jokes that she completed her sophomore year of college over 25 years – but after her husband passed away, Potter moved back to Milwaukee and found herself without much to do.

“I realized I could go back to school,” she said. She conceived the idea in November 2021 and began classes at UWM in January of 2022. And, she was delighted to find, all of her past credits were accepted. Potter was on her way to her degree.

2. Surround yourself with people who accept you and challenge you.

Potter calls herself a person of faith, but she had questions about life that her long years in church hadn’t answered. When she started school once again, she decided to major in philosophy, searching for new points of view. She found them, not only in her classes and in the Honors College, but in the mentors and classmates she met along the way.

In particular, Potter found a kindred spirit in philosophy lecturer Ágúst Magnússon.

“He is a man of faith, and as a philosopher, that’s extremely unusual,” she said. “We clicked from the very first semester and we’ve developed a relationship of sharing that’s helpful in processing some of the things that I couldn’t make sense out of.”

Her classmates are also a source of delight; Potter has enjoyed her time in the classroom alongside students of all ages. “We don’t all think alike, but we all think in the same direction,” she said with a smile.

And in return, she’s left her mark on them. Magnússon reflected on the impact that Potter has had on his classes.

“She perfectly embodies the idea that true wisdom comes from knowing that we don’t know, that we are always beginners,” he said. “She approaches every conversation and every topic with such joy that it inspires the rest of us to try to live up to her standards, both as a student and as a person.”

3. Your age is what you make of it.

Most college students intend to use their degree to help them advance in their chosen career. Potter is past that point in her life, but she has plenty of things that she wants to do with her degree. She wants to start writing her own poetry and start her own poetry critique group in her community. She wants to emulate the French Salon of the Enlightenment days where groups of people meet to pose difficult questions and puzzle through them together. She wants to start a program where she teaches cooking skills to college kids who many not have learned them.

In the short term, she’s planning to finish the last of her college credits by traveling to London for a two-week study abroad program through the Honors College. She’s leaving the day after graduation and plans to complete the class, extend her European travels by visiting Paris for a few days, and then sail back to the United States aboard the Queen Mary, a trans-Atlantic cruise ship.

“That’s my graduation present to me,” she joked.

Potter does not view her age as an obstacle. Indeed, Magnússon said, her wisdom and experience have improved the classroom.

“One of the great things about having someone with such profound life experience in class is that I can see it inspiring other students to think about the process of aging and becoming a full person,” he added. “I think many young people today are profoundly afraid of growing old, associating that process with negative qualities such as becoming more close-minded or angry. JoAnne is such an amazing antidote to this kind of thinking. She is joyous, vibrant, and energetic. I think all of us who know JoAnne can’t help but think to ourselves: ‘That’s what I want to be like when I get to be that age.’”

If you point out Potter’s distinction as one of the most mature students to ever graduate from UWM, though, she brushes it off.

“Yes, it’s pleasant to be recognized for something I’ve waited a long time to do, but my achievement is a small one compared to some of my fellow philosophy non-traditional graduates who have not only taken heavier schedules, held jobs, and tended to young families,” she said. “They are the ones who should be congratulated. I just got old.”

Perhaps – but she also got wisdom, a wealth of experience, and now, finally, her degree.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science