Alma Kocialek doesn’t like to talk about her age. But when you’re the oldest person to ever graduate from a Toronto university, it’s a hard topic to avoid.
The 89-year-old Brampton woman will be donning a cap and gown at York University this month, earning a degree in Gender and Women’s Studies a few weeks before her 90th birthday.
It’s a longtime goal for Kocialek, who decided to go back to school in 2011 after her husband died of cancer.
“I decided I’d just get up, get at it. Do something with my life,” said Kocialek, speaking over the phone from her 10th-floor condo.
She lives alone, drives and often walks to the lakeshore to picnic and people-watch. While going to school, Kocialek would drive herself to the GO station each day and ride the bus to York.
Kocialek talks with enthusiasm about some of the topics she studied: prostitution laws, missing and murdered Indigenous women and advancements in gender equality.
Kocialek said she was particularly interested in the plight of marginalized women trying to find employment in Canada. Helping people find work is close to Kocialek’s heart — she started her own personnel company in the 1970s, and says helping people find jobs was an “extremely rewarding” experience.
Jan Kainer, one of her professors at York, said Kocialek brought a valuable perspective to the class, offering her much younger classmates first-hand memories about what it was like to be a working woman in the 1970s.
“She talked a lot about how patronizing and chauvinistic the attitudes of the day were,” said Kainer, adding that Kocialek came to almost every class, regardless of the weather.
Kocialek didn’t just teach younger students — she became friends with them.
“We’d sit and giggle and laugh,” she said. “It kept me young too.”
But Kocialek said some aspects of a gender studies degree were a bit harder to handle — like talking about sex when there were men in the class.
“Sometimes I thought of crawling underneath my desk, I was so embarrassed,” said Kocialek, laughing.
“I got over it. Those guys knew more about sex than I do!”
Kocialek spared no effort at York, doing some summer courses that compressed nine months of work into three. She says her biggest challenge, however, was her ever-crashing computer. Kocialek recalls many frustrating nights talking to the Geek Squad at 3 a.m.
Kocialek also says she faced lot of criticism from people saying she was too old — to drive, to go back to school or even to carry a sack of cat litter up to her condo. She shrugs it off.
“Just because you might have a certain colour of hair doesn’t make you weak and feeble,” she said.
At the University of Toronto, the oldest graduate on record was Clive Davies, who graduated at age 79 in 2016.
Davies said he was motivated to finish his degree later in life by a sense of “unfinished business.”
“I think in many cases, my peers probably feel very much the same way. They feel they’ve just missed something in life and they’re determined to catch up,” said Davies, adding that he enjoyed being around young people on campus.
As an older student, Davies also said he was on “the same wavelength” as many of his professors, and was able to form meaningful relationships with them.
York University waives tuition fees for students aged 60 or older pursuing non-professional undergraduate degrees.In 2016, there were 675 students over the age of 50 at the school, and about 270 students aged 60 or older received tuition waivers that fall.
Jamie Scott, who also taught Kocialek, said in his 30 years of teaching he’s had very few students who were senior citizens. He said he wished more students took advantage of York’s tuition waiver.
“The older students, mature students bring a lot of experience and wisdom,” he said.
Kocialek’s graduation date is set for June 21, and daughter Judy Brock said she’ll be so proud to watch her “effervescent” mother walk across the convocation stage. Her mother watched her earn three degrees, said Brock. Now, the roles are reversed.
While Kocialek plans to play things by ear after graduation, she said she’s looking forward to getting out of the reading chairs and back to the recreation centre.
“I’ve got to get going,” she quipped. “I’m getting love handles you know!”