DES MOINES – Eighty-one-year-old college grad Joyce Kunkel beams as she shows me around her childhood bedroom. The 1940s décor is dated as evident from the posters of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby hanging on the wall opposite her bed. On her Victorian vanity sits a copy of Good Housekeeping from 1951 and six of those little strawberry hard candies. I ask why she chose to pursue a degree at her advanced age.
“College was free back in my day. I should have gone then. Instead I married and had six children by the age of 32. After all the kids had grown up and moved out and my husband, god rest his soul, passed away, I decided to go back and get my degree. It took quite a bit of gumption and elbow grease but by god I did it!”
I ask Joyce why she doesn’t move in with one of her children or grandchildren. She tells me she refuses to be burden on them. She adds that she won’t be much of burden to her parents because they don’t know she’s here half the time.
Though clearly overjoyed with finishing her degree, I can see that Joyce is hesitant to comment on her living situation. As any other college graduate would, Joyce is making a plan so as not to stagnate. She intends to live with her parents until she can save up enough money to get an apartment in the neighboring retirement village. Her days of staying up past nine and watching reruns of The Perry Como Show, she assures me are over.
“I spent a fair amount of time in college being wild as any college girl does, but now It’s time to get serious about getting a good job and my own apartment. I’ve got to make sure to put away enough money to live on my own and be independent from my parents. They just don’t understand how hard it is for an 81-year-old college graduate these days.”
Joyce’s parents Ed and Mary, both 99 years young support their daughter’s ambitions even if they don’t quite recognize her anymore. Mary gushed, “Yes Julia was a great tennis player. She even beat me a few times! I knew the Kennedys and they were nice people.”
Ed added, “I need a jacket for my cauliflower.”
Joyce knows her parents are proud of her accomplishments. She worries though they don’t grasp the amount of debt she has incurred because of her schooling. Also, they don’t know what year it is. She has been putting away each social security check she receives and has been working in the school cafeteria to support herself. Still it doesn’t seem to make a dent in the hefty $45,000 in student loans she has amassed. As most college grads, she will be paying off her loans until the day she dies which honestly could be any day now.