On a mild September morning Jeani Thomson recalls the landscape of what was formerly Southwest Missouri State College, which she briefly attended in the late 1960s before getting married.
While her then husband was serving in Vietnam, Thomson worked toward a degree in psychology from Drury University at Ft. Leonard Wood. She would later earn a law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, propelling her into a 25 year career as an attorney.
Now 67 years of age, the recently retired Thomson is back on campus, navigating the walkways amongst many traditional college students as she heads toward her Introduction to Literature by Women class.
“I realized that I probably wanted a little more structure and I really missed work from the perspective from exchanging ideas, the intellectual challenge of my job – which I was a career law clerk for Judge [James C.] England – so that involved research and writing. And this is just kind of a continuation of what I like to do,” Thomson said.
Thomson is enrolled in the MSU 62 program, in which eligible senior citizens can receive a fee waiver for taking one class per semester. Classes may be taken on an audit basis, or for credit, which was the choice for Thomson.
“I just felt like knowing myself I would get more out of it if I was going to be more competitive with the other classmates.”
And inside a class made up mostly of traditional freshmen students, Thomson is one of the more active participants.
On this day, she offers her views concerning a required reading on the visions of the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich.
“The idea of motherhood,” Thomson notes from the reading. “God is mother, Jesus is mother, and the way she [Julian of Norwich] extolled the virtues of motherhood, which I thought was interesting when many people think of that as patriarchal.”
Dr. Etta Madden is Thomson’s instructor.
“Jeani is a typical best student. We usually in a class of 30 would have maybe 10 students who are always ready to speak up and share their ideas, and she’s one of those 10,” Dr. Madden said.
For many seniors, the thought of going back to school and engaging in class discussion with students more than three times their junior could be intimidating. But Thomson, whose four children range in age from 19-44, says she missed that “vibrancy of youth”, and was excited for the opportunity to be around younger people again.
Thomson’s two oldest children have been among her notable supporters. After all, they were there during their mother’s earlier college days.
“I had my last final of college to finish my first degree and had a baby the next morning. Then when my daughters were in sixth grade and first grade, my ex-husband and I moved to Kansas City and I went to law school there.”
While most traditional students may take a dozen or more credit hours a semester, the MSU 62 program limits Thomson to one course. This one meets three times a week. That extra time gives Thomson the opportunity to take part in the other things that bring her joy, which include traveling, and spending time with her four grandchildren and four dogs that she’s rescued.
From an academic standpoint, she appreciates having extra time to review the material, which Thomson isn’t sure she is processing as easily at her age as she once did. And aside from some early computer struggles while assessing online class materials, her transition back to student has come rather easily and been very enjoyable, she says.
“You can only take one class a semester. Which I’d probably be signed up for two if I could. But I just think it’s a fantastic program.”
Interaction with her fellow classmates has been minimal so far, according to Thomson. But her younger instructor, Dr. Madden, says it’s easy to tell that her oldest student has their respect. And her involvement has added value to the classroom.
“One of the things I liked about Missouri State when I first came in 1995 was that what were called non-traditional students were fairly numerous on campus. And it always enriches the class to have diversity of ages,” Madden says.
For Jeani Thomson, going back to school was about regaining structure, exchanging ideas with others, and challenging herself intellectually. Thomson hopes these factors, which have motivated her throughout her academic career, will continue to push her throughout this class and for additional semesters down the road.