When she headed to campus as a freshman, Donna O’Shaughnessy, who is now a graduating senior, didn’t bring a smartphone.
Or a laptop computer.
Or a debit card.
She hadn’t taken an anti-technology pledge. Those technologies simply didn’t exist when her parents dropped her off at school the summer after she graduated from Joliet (Illinois) East High School in 1976.
She was the first in her family to attend college, and she remembers being very excited to be at Illinois.
Maybe a little too excited.
“I got caught up in the party scene,” the 56-year-old O’Shaughnessy said. “I started skipping classes, got behind, and crashed and burned pretty quickly.” She went to see her academic advisor, who told her she’d flunked out of school. “My mother didn’t talk to me the whole way home.”
O’Shaughnessy spent some time hitchhiking – mostly between Illinois and South Dakota – and after working as a nurse’s aide, she went to nursing school and then had a successful career as a nurse and a health care administrator.
She married and had four children, but she felt something was missing. “It was always in the back of my mind, ‘I’m supposed to graduate from Illinois,’” she said. “So when she retired, she found herself back on the Quad – a creative writing major determined to “do it well this time.”
“It took me 40 years to do it right, but this time I got so much more out of (the experience),” said O’Shaughnessy, who concedes she was shocked to realize how much there is left to learn. “I knew a lot about nursing, but I didn’t know a lot about the world.”
At first, she also wondered how she’d fit in with her new classmates. “The first day, I got to class early,” she said. “When the other students came in, they thought I was the teacher. They wouldn’t talk to me or sit by me.” Within the first few days, though, she became just another student.
Creative writing classmates called upon O’Shaughnessy’s life experience. One student asked her about his own written description of a death scene. “Is this how it happens when someone dies?” the student asked.
O’Shaughnessy has found it most rewarding to be a student again. Her professors not only have taught her the craft of writing, but also the rewards of taking risks. “They’ve given me the building blocks. Now, it’s up to me to keep building,” she said.
O’Shaughnessy embraced the student experience, including studying abroad in Ireland, last summer. “I was at National University of Ireland Galway,” she said. “I’d been to Ireland before, but only as a tourist. This time, I got to take classes with Irish writers.”
And this time around at college, O’Shaughnessy has stayed focused on the classes. Her advice for young students? “First, take your classes seriously. It doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, but balance is everything,” she said. “If you get into trouble, ask for help.”
Not much has changed from the Illinois she remembers in 1976 “except for the wiring,” her term for the ubiquitous technology. Her favorite change is the diversity of the campus. “That just delights me,” she said.
O’Shaughnessy’s only regret is that her parents aren’t alive to see her accept an Illinois diploma. Still, she doesn’t regret taking a different path to graduation. “I wouldn’t even say I wish I’d done this sooner,” she said, describing her career, the family farm she and her husband ran for many years and her time helping care for her grandchildren.
“The timing of going back to school was great,” she said. “I guess I’m a slow learner, but this has been amazing.”