Summer 2006, Fort Hayes State University – Hays, Kansas: Academic Advisor Joleen Briggs received an email request from Nola Ochs inquiring about her old transcript. Briggs looked for the old transcript for several hours before her search took her to the basement archives in the admissions building. There in a file, she found a note on a 3×5 card that Nola Ochs – then Nola Hill – took a correspondence course called Directed Study April 19, 1930.
Astounded, Briggs got in touch with Ochs. She asked, “Mrs. Ochs, are you 92 years old?” Ochs responded, “I don’t keep up with my age, but I was born in 1911.” A short time later, Ochs enrolled as a student at Fort Hays and began taking courses online.
Nola Ochs was born on November 22, 1911, in Jetmore, Kansas. She graduated from high school and in 1930 began college, via correspondence courses, at Fort Hays, then known as Kansas State College. After passing the teacher’s certification exam she taught in a one-room school for four years, before getting married. Her college pursuits took a back seat to help her husband on their wheat farm and raising four sons.
Ochs started taking a few classes at Dodge City Community College in 1972 after her husband of 39 years died. Sixteen years later, in 1988 at age 77, she earned her associate degree. With that milestone behind her, Ochs, who loved to learn, needed another goal. She began taking additional classes at Dodge City.
In the fall of 2006, Ochs left her farm in Jetmore and moved 100 miles to Hays. She lived in a dorm for non-traditional students to complete the last 30 hours of history and art classes that she needed to earn her bachelors degree. Faculty and students quickly accepted the charming, witty grandmother of 13 and great grandmother of 15. She asked for and got no special treatment from the faculty because of her age. In the first semester, Ochs and granddaughter Alexandra took a course together.
May 14, 2007, was a special day for 21-year old Alexandra Ochs. Not only did she receive her diploma from Fort Hays, but also she had the distinction of walking across the stage with her grandmother who was getting her degree. The Fort Hays campus had been buzzing for several days. The 95-year-old grandmother broke the Guinness World Record for oldest college graduate. Then Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius was on hand to present Ochs her degree.
It had taken Ochs 77 years to earn her bachelors degree. The 5’2” great grandmother, with her white hair pulled back in a bun, accepted her diploma from Governor Sebelius, graduating with a 3.7 GPA. After taking the summer off, Ochs started work on her masters degree. On May 15, 2010, the 98 year-old completed her research paper and passed her final exam, to earn her masters degree in liberal studies – setting the Guinness World Record for the oldest person to earn a masters degree.
After earning her masters, Ochs received a graduate teaching assistant position in the history department at Fort Hays. The university celebrated Ochs 100th birthday at halftime of a basketball game in November 2011.
“I don’t dwell on my age,” said Ochs. “It might limit what I can do. Most everyone has something they would like to do. Maybe it seems impossible, but it isn’t. I would encourage people to search their desires, to pick out one, and then get out and do it!” Ochs continued to defy the odds by taking courses, teaching, and writing her memoirs until her death on December 9, 2016, at 105.
“When you start a thing, don’t quit until you finish it.” Henry Ford