For many people, the “golden years” are a time to slow down and recall past achievements. Nola Ochs—a Guinness record holder as the world’s oldest college graduate at age 95—saw age as an opportunity to take on new challenges and satisfy unfulfilled goals.
Born in 1911 in Illinois, Nola always loved learning. She was a good student who graduated high school in 1929 and began college via correspondence course from Fort Hays State University in Kansas. After passing her teacher's certification exam, she taught in county schools for four years before marrying her husband, Vernon Ochs.
Soon, the realities of farming sidetracked any thoughts of furthering her education, though Nola lived a good, full life on the farm, raising four sons. She always yearned to learn more about the world she lived in, but not until after Vernon died in 1972 did Nola consider resuming her formal education.
"I just thought something off the farm would be fun,” she explained. “My first class was a tennis class at Dodge City Community College. That was in 1978, when I was 67."
On campus, Nola was undaunted by her youthful classmates. Her natural wit and down-to-earth charm helped her fit in easily with her fellow students, even though she had 13 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
"The students on the campus accepted me. I enjoyed myself so much, that fall I enrolled in an agribusiness marketing class,” Nola said. “Really, I had no thought of ever graduating. For 10 years, I just took classes that were of interest to me, something that I would enjoy doing; mostly history and composition. And then one of the professors came to me and told me if I would take college algebra, I would have enough credit hours to graduate."
In 1988, at age 77, Nola received her associate degree from Dodge City Community College. Afterward, she was itching to achieve another goal.
“I still wanted to go to school. It was fun to go to classes. And if I had an assignment to do in the evening, that occupied my time in a pleasant way, you know,” she recalled.
She started out taking more classes at Dodge City but soon became more ambitious. She e-mailed an academic advisor at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas, mentioning that she had taken a course from the university years earlier. After some digging, the advisor located a 3x5 card stored in the basement of the administration building stating that Nola had indeed been a student, in 1930. When the advisor e-mailed back, she asked, "Nola, how old are you?"
At first Nola took classes long distance, but eventually she moved 100 miles from her farm to live on-campus. As a student of history, Nola brought a refreshing perspective to her classes as she shared her personal experiences, and she became a favorite of both students and professors.
"I like to tell stories, you know,” Nola said. After graduation, she got to do just that when Princess Cruise Lines hired her as a guest lecturer on a nine-day Caribbean cruise.
For most people, graduating at age 95 with a 3.7 GPA might be enough of an accomplishment, but not for Nola. In May 2010, at age 98, Nola Ochs received her master’s degree, making her the oldest person to receive that distinction. As she celebrated her 100th birthday, Nola was taking more master’s-level classes while working as a graduate teaching assistant.
By the time Nola passed away in 2016, at the incredible age of 105, she had achieved her goal of writing a book about her life experiences. At one point in the process, when asked for her life advice, she said, “Buy the plane ticket!” She meant that people should take advantage of life’s opportunities and not wait until tomorrow.
All together, Nola left an incredible biography. As a teenager, she drove to school in a horse and buggy to her one-room schoolhouse. Then she survived the Great Depression and the dust storms of the 1930s on her small Kansas farm. Eventually, she traveled the world, raised a family with her beloved husband, and built a whole new life of pursuing her academic interests.
Nola’s dedication even brought her an appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno and social media fame as the subject of the “senior freshman” viral meme. Everyone who had the good fortune to know her, or to hear about her remarkable story, can be inspired by her example of living life to the fullest.
Live Life. Pass It On!
This billboard about Live Life features Nola Ochs; oldest college graduate.