Updates and Information on Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Skip to main content

Ola Kizer is a lot like other college students who finish their undergraduate degree requirements. She-s thinking about pursuing a master-s degree … and traveling is a possibility too.

Then again, Ola is different than most college students who earn their bachelor-s degree. Ola is 86-years old, and she is the oldest student at the University of Tennessee at Martin and in the University of Tennessee system to earn her bachelor-s degree.

Ola was one of more than 350 students to receive her diploma during fall semester commencement exercises, Dec. 12, in the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center on the UT Martin campus.

-Most people my age are bedridden or deceased, but I refuse to sit at home,- Kizer said. -If I learn only one thing each day, I-ve accomplished something.-

Ola-s desire to learn comes from her father, who was a sharecropper in Fulton County, Ky. He always told his daughter that an education cannot be taken away.

-My father never kept us out of school to help with the farm,- Ola said. -He saw that I got to school, even though he had to walk the seven miles with me, way over an hour, from Mud Creek where we lived, to Hickman to the school for blacks.

-I had it hard back then, and I-m very thankful for what I have now. It-s hard for me to say I can-t do something,- Ola said.

After marrying for the first time at 18, there was a break in Ola-s education. She remembered what her father said about getting an education 10 years later. After she earned her high school diploma from Hickman, Ky., she started her collegiate career at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.

The college career was interrupted again during World War II, when Ola moved with her sister to Cleveland, Ohio, to work in an aircraft manufacturing plant. After Cleveland, Ola and her family moved to California, where Ola attended Los Angeles City College and Los Angeles Technical College.

-I originally went out to take care of my mother, who was disabled, but my sister urged me to go back to nursing school, because all my life I had wanted to be a nurse,- Ola said.

Ola became a licensed practical nurse and had additional training in psychiatric nursing. She stayed in California until she retired at 68. From California, it was on to Oregon, once again with the family.

Classroom learning was put on hold until the Kizers moved to Owensboro, Ky. and then Carbondale, Ill., in the late 1980s. The re-entry into academia started with drawing and art appreciation classes at Logan College in Carterville, Ill. Ola said the classes were important if she was going to study clothing and textiles.

In the fall of 1994, Ola made her presence known at UT Martin. She was one of four full time students 60 and over. Her first semester on campus found her taking general home economics, interior design, textiles, clothing and family management, and American literature.

Her tenure at UT Martin was interrupted by the death of her husband and an associate-s degree in carpentry from Western Kentucky Technical School in Paducah.

Ola completed the requirements for her bachelor-s of science degree in human environmental sciences by maintaining at least a part-time student status for the last six years. -Sometimes I would walk around here with one or two classes, because I couldn-t get in any more,- Ola said. -I never want to stop learning.-

Like most college students, Ola had her struggles, especially with math. With a project and one final exam left before graduation, Ola worried about her math grade. When she found out she passed the exam and the course with a D, she summed it all up. -D is for done.-

-But she-s not done yet,- said UT Martin Chancellor Philip W. Conn. -Ola is a testament that the life of the mind continues on. We admire her wisdom, her courage, and her perseverance.
She-s already registered for a class at UT Martin next semester.-

And she-s already a member of the UT Martin Heritage Society. Ola-s initial gift to the society was a $50,000 endowment.

In that sense Ola is different than most college students, but now that she has earned her degree … traveling is a possibility – deep sea fishing or camping in a cabin with a near-by restaurant so she doesn-t have to cook.