On January 14th 2018, an old beater car with a faded “Never Graduate” bumper sticker plastered on the back sat 2 blocks away from the University of Georgia’s Main Library.
I noticed this because I was on my way to interview Olyn Gee, who is perhaps the oldest undergraduate student at the University of Georgia. I was hoping that this was Gee’s car, but I learned it wasn’t when he informed me that the library has free parking on the weekends. Gee is a 70-year-old undergraduate student and a lifelong learner who has been taking classes at the university since 2011.
He fell in love with the UGA’s campus in 1961, when he was 13 years old, less than 10 years after the library where we’d met had been built. But, due to a family move and other mitigating circumstances, he didn’t come back to the university until 2011, 50 years later. This time, he was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science, his third degree.
The first time he was in college was during the mid-1960s. He got married during his freshman year, and suddenly had bills to pay and a family to support. He didn’t drop out of school. Instead, he kept his full course load with summer classes and worked 40 hours a week at the Parke-Davis manufacturing plant in Greenwood, S.C. Despite his determination to stay in school, he “didn’t actually learn.” He got by, but now he considers college a transformative experience, not necessarily for the classes or degree, but for the people students meet.
Ninety-six percent of UGA’s undergrads are between the ages of 18 and 24. It’s not uncommon for many of those students (myself included) to feel a mixture of excitement, uncertainty, disbelief, and occasionally dread as graduation and the pending repayment of student loans comes closer and closer with every passing semester. But to Gee, the true prize isn’t the degree, it’s the opportunity to continue learning and be surrounded by young minds.
“Being around young people keeps you young,” Gee said with a smile.
One thing Gee doesn’t have to worry about? Those loans. Senior citizens (62 years of age or older) are eligible to take classes for free at any of the 29 colleges in the University System of Georgia.
In 2016, only 27 out of the 27,951 undergraduate students enrolled at the university were 62 years of age or older, according to the University Factbook (oir.uga.edu/factbook/enrollment). Gee encourages other senior citizens to take advantage of the program. If he wasn’t in school and taking classes he’d probably “be sitting in front of the T.V. watching CNN all day, bored to death.”
Gee is only two credit hours away from graduation. After which, he plans to continue taking classes. Right now, he is interested in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
“I think journalism is under attack right now, and journalism is the key to keeping a democracy working.”
And even though he doesn’t plan to quit taking classes anytime soon, that won’t stop him from buying an alumni T-shirt.