Patricia Goetz

When Patricia Goetz enrolled in college at the age of 72, she assumed she would be the oldest student in her classes.

Now, at the age of 80, it is official, Goetz is the oldest University of Wisconsin Oshkosh graduate on record.

At the end of her final semester, Goetz was honored with a commencement ceremony just for her.

“That was a really exciting night. I felt very honored, and it was totally unexpected,” she said.

Chancellor Andrew Leavitt and several UW Oshkosh faculty and staff attended the ceremony, paying tribute to the relationships Goetz built during her seven years at UW Oshkosh.

“I got several cards and notes from people I’ve worked with over the last eight years, and the ones that touch me the most said, ‘you not only have a college degree but you’ve given others a good path to follow’ and I thought that was really nice,” Goetz said.

In 1996, Goetz retired from her career as a registered nurse in Racine, Wis., and she decided to focus on her passion for writing. After starting with continuing education programs, Goetz enrolled at UW Oshkosh to earn her bachelor’s degree.

“People ask me all the time why I went back to school at my age,” she said. “Especially since I could have audited classes for free.”

In Wisconsin, residents older than 60 may audit college courses at no cost. But the audit option wasn’t for her, Goetz said. When a student audits a course, their attendance is not mandatory, and their grades are not officially recorded.

“When you audit a class, you can do the work or you are allowed to skip it. I know myself, and I needed the grade in order to push myself,” she said.

Goetz credits two things for her success—her desire to earn her degree, and the relationships she built along her journey.

“Every person I asked for help has supported me. I never would have made it without them,” she said.

This support was especially essential when Goetz needed to take a brief break from UW Oshkosh for health reasons. When she returned, she was more determined than ever to graduate—and she found support in the Graduation Project.

The Graduation Project at UW Oshkosh helps students who return after stopping out —like Goetz—prepare to complete their requirements for graduation and navigate any challenges they may have getting back on track.

In addition to making relationships with staff and faculty, Goetz also remarks on the support and camaraderie she felt with her classmates.

“The age disappears when you get into class,” she said, though she did note a few times when she realized her age could be an advantage.

“It was funny that sometimes I felt like a historical source in class. We were studying WWII and they thought it was cool that I could actually talk about it,” Goetz said.

“And sometimes people would see me walking with my backpack or sitting at a desk, and they would smile at me. I would just smile right back, and it wouldn’t be until later that I’d realize why they were smiling. I would forget that I’m so much older than they are.”

Now living in Indiana near one of her daughters, Goetz is looking forward to the next step—she said her options are open but she’s focused on finding a job.

“Ah yes, there’s the rub,” Goetz said. “It’s been a joke all these years when people would ask me what I want to do when I grew up. But it’s not a joke anymore!”

One part of her capstone project—a creative writing piece about the time she spent living in Jerusalem has already been published in the Journal Times, and she’s considering sending the rest to be published as well.

“I went to school for eight years for writing and that’s what I want to do for work,” she said.

She is considering self-publishing, writing for her local newspaper, and submitting short stories and other works of creative writing to be published in a variety of publications.

“I have a list of six careers and opportunities, and they all include writing,” she said, teasing that she has non-writing prospects lined up as well.

“I uploaded my resume to a career website, and my resume got a response from Fed Ex for unloading trucks. My daughter laughed and asked me if they know how old I am.”

Though Goetz has her diploma in hand, she tells others not to think for one moment that her learning will end. Goetz enrolled at East Tennessee State University for spring 2016.

“It was such a gift for me to go back to school,” she said. “It drove me crazy sometimes, but I can’t stop because I would miss it too much and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Regarding advice for other students–young and old–Goetz spreads a message of encouragement: “Focus on your desire, face your fears and ask for help. And just go for it. This was the best experience of my life.”

Check out photos from Goetz’s graduation celebration.