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Native American Elder Earns Junior College Degree Online

Native American elder earns her degree at 70, and will continue her education full-time.

Educational diplomas eluded Roberta Torres for most of her life. Her parents gave her away to be married after the 10th grade and then she raised six children.

“My mom gave me away, the old Indian way. I was mad at her,” said Torres, of Phoenix, Arizona. Still, the San Carlos Apache elder, was determined to first obtain her high school diploma and then a college degree. The high school diploma came at the age of 30.

Some 39 years later at the age of 70, when most of her peers were retiring, Torres received a junior college degree in criminal justice. She may be the first in her tribe at this age to do so.

“That was always my dream to get a college degree and work in the juvenile probation field,” said the recent graduate as she talked about her higher education journey that began online at the University of Phoenix in October of 2008.

“There was no contact with the instructor. It involved lots of research. They say three to four hours of work [at night], but it’s more than that. After work, full-time with CPS [Child Protective Services], I would come home and do my homework. Sometimes I was up until midnight,” said Torres, who has since left her job to concentrate on being a full-time college student at the University of Phoenix.

While raising her family, Torres worked various jobs, but it was her job as an assistant with a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) investigator that sparked her interest in criminal justice.

“[At times] I served as an interpreter for the police department,” Torres said. Still, she didn’t act on pursuing her dream until after her children were grown and had children of their own.

In fact, Torres didn’t enroll in college until great-grandchildren starting coming along. Currently, she is the sole person in her family attending college, although she is constantly encouraging her children and grandchildren to go back to school. “I tell them you can better yourself. If grandma can do it, you can do it too,” said Torres.

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She did well with the research classes but Torres did not look forward to taking math, which is not her best subject. She turned to her teenage grandson, who lives 120 miles away on the San Carlos Apache Reservation, for help. “My grandson Tim was my tutor in math. He did it by phone and on the computer. He’s good at math and he’s only 16. I’m giving him a certificate too,” said Torres, who graduated with a 3.4 GPA.

Struggling through math and the late nights didn’t deter this senior citizen. In fact, she’s already taken six classes toward a four-year degree in Criminal Justice and Human Services. “I enjoy it. My kids tell me you seem to be happy going to school. My daughter says you need to go back to school if that’s what keeps you going,” Torres said.

On top of being a full-time student, she works out at the gym three times a week. The former diabetic says she overcame the disease with diet and exercise.

Statistics published in USA Today show that Torres is among 12 million people in the U.S. who are considered non-traditional students attending college above the age of 30. That’s about 29 percent of all higher education students. Many colleges offer discounted fees or grants and scholarships to senior citizens.

Older students willing to volunteer doing community service can also earn money for college. The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act allows those 55 and older who have volunteered 350 hours to apply for an education award of up to $1,000. The volunteer may use it for his or her own education or it can be transferred to a child, foster child or grandchild. Many colleges also offer free tuition on an audit basis, meaning seniors or retirees can attend lectures without doing the homework or taking exams but no college credit is earned. The University of Phoenix allows anyone to attend lectures but audit students are required to pay one credit hour of tuition.

Torres paid for all her classes. The San Carlos Apache Tribe offers assistance to college students but not to those taking online classes. “I did this all on my own. An online class is harder than in the classroom, they should realize that,” she said. After years of trying, Torres is finally receiving financial assistance and is an on-campus student at the University of Phoenix Hohokam campus.She hopes her degree will land her a job as a juvenile counselor or juvenile probation officer.

While she may not reach the ranks of her son Tim Johnson Sr., who has a doctoral degree in theology, she is forging ahead to show the world anyone can succeed in school.

“Education never ends. There’s always hope. It’s up to you,” said Torres.