Joan Dolstra is a walking advertisement for the benefits of staying mentally fit. At 81, the Maloneys Beach resident is intelligent and articulate, and achieving distinctions for her undergraduate studies at Wollongong University, Batemans Bay.
Joan was 80 when she made the decision to undertake a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English literature and history.
“I thought, well, what else can you do when you’re 80?” she said.
It had been 65 years since Joan had undertaken any formal education. However, in those years she raised three tertiary educated children, all boys, and all professionals of their chosen industry.
Those children went on to produce nine grandchildren and Joan is the proud great grandmother of “multiple great grandchildren” – 13 to be precise.
A number of those great grandchildren are in the midst of university studies. And, while Joan may have been, “a little bit embarrassed – almost ashamed,” to say that she also wanted to go to university, her family was not.
"They were excited and proud for me when I started," she said.
In 1952, Joan was 14 years old and in the midst of completing her Intermediate Certificate at a school in Rhodes, Sydney, when she decided to leave.
On her decision to enrol as a mature-aged university student, Joan said: “I thought people would look at me and think, 'What's this silly old chook doing here?’ But I just feel like one of the students. Nobody has ever made me feel that I’m too old … which is very nice.”
Joan started her degree last year and is currently studying two subjects per semester, with a third over the summer break.
Talking with Joan it is immediately clear that her family is a close and loving one. She says it was watching her children and grandchildren undertake their own degrees that inspired her.
“All these children and grandchildren that have been to university all took something from it and found in interesting,” she said.
“I love reading and I love discussing, thinking, debating … History is fascinating. Looking at who have done what, and how it affects others. It doesn’t matter which country you are in and what your politics are, everyone has had an important role in life because whatever you’ve done affects other people, and it’s just like that through the centuries. So it’s interesting to know who did what and why.”
Joan shares a classroom with students ranging from teenagers who have just completed their Higher School Certificates to adults looking to increase their learning.
She says her age sparks interesting conversations, particularly around recent historic events.
“They’re surprised that what they regard as history is my life,” she said.
Not surprisingly, Joan has struggled to use computers as efficiently as her classmates. Batemans Bay is a satellite campus for the University of Wollongong and much of the study requires online research and assessments.
“I have to confess, I’m a complete dodo with the computer. For me the greatest time waste is what I have to do on computer because of my lack of skills. I think I spend as much time worrying about the computer as my studies,” she said.
“It does not seem logical to me (and) I really regret how often I have to ask for help.”
Because she lacks confidence in her computer skills, Joan feels that she would not have been able to “survive” at the university’s main campus in Wollongong.
“It’s because this university (Batemans Bay campus) is small and personal and people seem to have time for you,” she said. “Fellow students say, ‘No I,’ll show you how to do that Joan’. They really are encouraging, right from Jaimey (Facchin, Campus Manager) to the person you are sitting beside. They just want you to succeed, and they want you to enjoy it while you’re succeeding.”
At the moment Joan is immersed in social justice and youth literature and says her family shares a love for reading and history. But not all literature it would seem – at least not Joan, as a young student.
“I hated Shakespeare at school, I really hated it, because of the teacher. We (studied) A Midsummer Night's Dream and I thought it was the most unutterable trash, and it's still a bit off-centre but I've learned to enjoy it,” she said.
“It was the way it was taught ... it had no coherence. It was just pulled apart and dropped in a basket and threads pulled out. But we went to see the local theatre production and that was thoroughly entertaining.”
Of youth literature Joan said: “It’s a different field. This level of reading wasn't available when I had children.”
In addition to raising her “very loving” children, Joan has worked and volunteered throughout her life.
“I’ve done many things … I've been everything from a prison visitor to teaching infants safety in the swimming pool but most time that I’ve given has been as a primary school librarian,” she said. “We had a big old metal file in the last school I worked at and it had folders with bits of old newspapers and magazines.”
Joan and her husband, 88-year-old retired ambulance officer Bert, have lived at Maloneys Beach for 16 years.
“I couldn’t be here without my wonderful husband’s encouragement. He’s in his 89th year, he’s very healthy and he’s really helpful,” she said.
Bert has become somewhat of a study partner for Joan, who goes home and discusses her research with him.
“He’s very interested in it. We’re all history people - we love history,” she said.
On what her future holds as a post-graduate Joan says: “Nobody is going to employ an 80-something-year-old but there’s always voluntary service. I’ve done a lot of voluntary jobs through my life ... there’s always somebody that you can encourage or help in some way.”
For example, Joan described being in a TAFE office and overhearing a young man’s request for help in learning to read and write.
“He would have been in his late twenties and I thought, ‘I could help somebody like that’,” she said.
For now however, Joan is simply living to learn and enjoying the ride.
"Well, it's a pleasure, it's almost a joy, to have the opportunity to extend myself this way. I really do value being able to study and to learn new things and to experience new things,” she said.
“When I started I was hoping I would pass and now I'm not satisfied with just passing, I want more distinctions.”
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