- Associated Press - Sunday, May 7, 2017

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) - Many times over the last six years, 65-year-old Barbara Selyem thought of giving up and dropping her quest to earn a college degree in math at Montana State University.

But Selyem stuck with it. Thanks to her professors, to her friendships with younger students, and thanks to her own hard work, determination and faith, she graduated Saturday with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported (https://bit.ly/2pkqTQ5)

“I’ve been faithful to what I started out to do,” she said. “But I’ve had a lot of help. Nobody gets anywhere without a lot of help.”

Her professors told her they couldn’t recall any woman older than her graduating in math. Roughly 23 percent of MSU students are older than traditional age, having been out of school at least three years when they enroll. Of all 2,204 students graduating Saturday, MSU officials said Selyem has the earliest birthday.

“I’m the oldest math co-ed,” Selyem said, right after her last final. She wore her gray hair long, a small cross around her neck and a tired smile.

“I will not miss finals or exams or homework,” she said. “I will miss the students, my classmates, a lot. And some favorite teachers. I can’t say enough about the math department. Everybody has been so good to me, so gracious.”

The state of Montana offers free tuition to state residents 65 or older. Selyem said she didn’t take advantage of that program, and paid the same tuition as everyone else. Money left to her by her mother helped cover tuition.

Asked why she decided to enter college at age 59, Selyem said it’s a story that goes back to St. Louis, Missouri, where she grew up.

Married at 16, she earned her high school diploma through correspondence courses. She took a college entrance exam and won a four-year college scholarship, but she didn’t want to leave her infant son. Divorced at 22, she tried night school, but with two sons to raise, she dropped out.

She landed a job as a secretary with a company manufacturing grain elevator buckets. Over two decades, she rose through the company, becoming office manager, selling, loading trucks, packing, training, and marketing. She became a vice president.

In 1998 she moved to Montana and married Bruce Selyem, a Museum of the Rockies photographer. He loved photographing old grain elevators and started the Country Grain Elevator Historical Society. She wrote histories to go with the photos, and they published books and calendars.

One day Barb Selyem told a neighbor she’d had a dream about going back to school and studying math. She enrolled at MSU.

“I tell people, I believe this is where I’m supposed to be,” she said.

Earning a math degree is hard enough, but it’s even harder for an older student to memorize equations and theorems. She often found it frustrating.

“Believe me, I’ve cried a lot over the last six years,” she said. “I’ve wanted to quit so often.”

Driving to MSU one day on Stucky Road, she was crying, thinking of dropping half or all her classes. She needed a sign. Passing a cattle field that sometimes held a bison, she thought if the buffalo were standing by the fence, that would be a sign. Not only was the buffalo standing by the fence, she said, “but he was staring right at me.”

Technology proved a big help. She used a Livescribe Smartpen that recorded the professor’s lecture while she took notes. She listened to recordings of every single lecture a second time. She used her smartphone to photograph classroom boards full of equations.

Professors were great, always welcoming when she sought help. Friendships with students provided her greatest support.

“I love them all,” she said. “I’m going to miss them.”

She and younger students formed small study groups, corrected each other’s math mistakes and encouraged each other. She became like a second grandmother to one young woman. Looking back, she sees those friendships as her purpose.

“The reason I had to struggle was so that other people could help me,” she said.

As to the future, she plans to write a book - not of math, but of poetry.

She plans to hand down her graduation robe to her grandson.

“I feel proud that I’ve been faithful,” she said. “There’s no part I’ve done all on my own. It’s been all these people coming to the party that I’ve got to thank.”


Information from: Bozeman Daily Chronicle, https://www.bozemandailychronicle.com

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