Woods Alumna Enrolls At 72 Years Young
By: Katie Shane
For Tracy Thomas the old saying, “Age is just a number” are words to live by.
At 72 years young, the longtime nurse is entering into a new phase of life, as a student.
This week, Thomas will enroll at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in the new RN to BSN program with around 40 other licensed nurses.
While Thomas’ age may be shocking to some, she says it’s never too late to accomplish a goal.
“Why not at 70,” Thomas questions. “If I don’t reach my goal and I end up dead, so what? I’ve been putting one foot in front of the other for years! Everyone has a goal, and this is my goal.”
It’s a goal Thomas has had for years, specifically the goal of receiving a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) at The Woods.
As a young nursing student, Thomas graduated from The Indiana State Teachers College (now known as Indiana State University) in 1963 with a nursing certification. At that time, nurses did not earn a degree and took science classes at Union Hospital.
“We were called diploma nurses, we took classes at the university and then had on the job training through the hospital,” Thomas explains. “A few years after that I started talking about going back to school. The WED program opened up and I thought it was time I get my bachelor’s degree.”
Continuing as a nurse at Union Hospital, Thomas enrolled in the Women’s External Degree (WED) program at The Woods. She soon discovered the academic experience was unlike anything she had known before.
“They cared when you came to class, they cared what you thought, you got feedback from the professors. Women had a voice and they cared what we said and cared if we made it in the world, and it was an experience like coming home,” Thomas says with a smile. “It was wonderful.”
Thomas graduated with a liberal arts degree from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in 1975.
After graduating, Thomas says she made a promise to herself that she would get a bachelor’s degree in nursing if it ever was offered at The Woods.
She would have to wait nearly four decades, but finally that promise is becoming a reality.
In 2014, the college began offering a new bachelor’s degree program for women and men who currently hold an associate’s degree and nursing license. The major is designed to enhance a nurse’s knowledge, skills and abilities while developing additional skills in critical thinking, writing, management and leadership.
For Thomas, the degree will not only enhance the skills she has honed during her career, but also provide her the chance to pursue a Master’s Degree, also through The Woods. Her ultimate goal is to share what she’s learned by becoming a teacher.
And having someone like Thomas either in the classroom or in front of the classroom is something Saint Mary-of-the-Woods welcomes. Director and Professor of Nursing Marcia Miller says Thomas will be a very positive aspect to the program.
“We feel that age is not a limit but an asset,” Miller says. “She brings great experience, leadership, maturity and passion… You talk about aspire higher, and she is an example of that. She has great ambition; we welcome her experience, and we think she has a lot to offer other nurses.”
And some of those other nurses have things that they can offer Thomas, including help easing her into classes almost forty years after the first time she graduated from The Woods. Thomas is the first to admit education has changed since the 1970s.
“Everyone is used to computers but not me,” Thomas says with a laugh. “There will be a learning curve. They told me I have to get a laptop, but I don’t want a laptop! But you know what; if you want to do it, you will do it… Is it going to be easy, well what is easy?”
It might not be easy, especially at 72 years old, but Thomas says she does know the support she’ll receive from faculty and staff at The Woods will make her degree more obtainable.
“I just hope that I can do it after 40 years of not being in school,” Thomas says. “But they will help me achieve my goal. That’s what they are there for; they care whether or not you accomplish your goals. Some universities sell education but you don’t get that impression that you are just another face here.”
It’ll be hard for Thomas to be just another face. Even before she enrolled in the RN to BSN program she was already being called an inspiration. She shakes off the attention, saying it’s her work that is the true inspiration.
“I don’t think that part of me is inspirational,” Thomas says. “I think when I go to a patient and I say to them, ‘I will be here for you every minute that I can, and I will be here on this journey, let me help you today. I care.’ Now that to me is how I am inspirational and that to me makes me happy and makes my job worthwhile.”
And it’s that passion and inspiration Thomas hopes to one day pass on to aspiring nurses at The Woods. But for now she’s looking forward to her new role as an aspiring student at a place she knows well.
“I’m excited,” Thomas says. “It feels like I have come home.”