Graduate Degree Was 90 Years in the Making

Helen Small may be 90 years old, but she has a lot in common with some of her grandchildren – including a penchant for pulling “all-nighters” before a big exam.

“I always told my kids when they were young, ‘Don’t ever wait and cram the night before a test,’ ” she said. “But nowadays, I sometimes stay up until midnight or 1 studying for my own tests!”

Those late nights will pay off in May with a master of science degree in psychological sciences from The University of Texas at Dallas’ School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Small, who waited 67 years to return to college life after leaving to get married in 1939, graduated from UT Dallas with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2007. She is the second-oldest graduate in the history of the school.

“I’m not happy unless I’m busy. I still have a lot to learn and a lot of interesting things to do.”

Helen Small,
psychological sciences
graduate student

Small enjoyed UT Dallas so much as an undergraduate that she didn’t hesitate to move forward to graduate school. But don’t expect her to hit the streets soon with her newly minted diploma, searching for a full-time job.

“I’m 90 years old,” she said. “I’m too old to go out and take a job away from some young person who really needs it.”

Instead, Small plans to volunteer her expertise at hospitals, shelters and senior living centers. She said she enjoys working with older people because she truly understands their needs and concerns.

“I’m not happy unless I’m busy,” she said. “I still have a lot to learn and a lot of interesting things to do.”

Dr. Duane Buhrmester, associate dean of undergraduate education and professor of psychology, said he wishes all his students could be like Small.

“She is very smart, curious, self-disciplined and truly loves to learn,” he said. “She always enriches class discussions with her wisdom, keen insights into human nature, and her openness to new ideas and challenges. The younger students in our psychological sciences master’s program have gained immensely from her. To top it off, Helen is an exceptionally lovely person.”

Small said her family is proud of her accomplishments, though her sons tease about the possibility of her heading to medical school next. They threw a big party to celebrate her 90th birthday in April and her upcoming graduation.

“My family sent out e-vites to all of my friends, and I told them, ‘Some of my friends don’t know what an e-vite is, much less what to do with it,’ ” she said. “They promised they’d go back to the old-fashioned paper invitations for my 100th birthday party.”

Small said education has always been an important part of her life. Even when she left college to marry her sweetheart from the University of Akron, Al Small, she looked forward to returning to school someday. When her husband died in 2004, she returned as a full-time student.

But Small is quick to point out that she did a lot of learning in the decades between semesters. She and Al moved here in 1953, started a successful homebuilding business and raised their three sons.

Two of Small’s sons became physicians, and the third is a dentist. All of her nine grandchildren have college degrees, and several beat her to graduate school.

“Helen is an amazing person and a wonderful role model for students,” said Dr. John Santrock, professor of psychology and one of Small’s teachers. “What especially stands out about Helen as a student is how appreciative she is of the opportunity to learn. Helen is one of the best exemplars I’ve ever encountered of the statement we use to characterize the importance of being not just physically fit, but cognitively fit, as we age: ‘Use it or lose it.’ We are very proud of her at UT Dallas.”

The MS in psychological sciences is designed for students who desire more research training, advanced coursework and applied experience. The research-focused program requires students to work with a research mentor from the beginning and to be actively involved in at least one research laboratory throughout the training.

Dr. Marion Underwood, Ashbel Smith professor of psychological sciences, said Small has been a “wonderful member of our first cohort of students” in UT Dallas’ master’s program in psychological sciences.

“She has excelled in her academic work and has brought great wisdom and interpersonal savvy,” Underwood said. “We recently asked second-year master’s students to offer one piece of advice for first-year master’s students for making the most of this graduate program. Helen’s guidance was: ‘Go and ask the faculty for help. They want you to succeed. You are the culmination of their ongoing efforts, and they want to help you.’ Helen understands how universities work, and she’s been a great role model.”

Small said her time at UT Dallas has been one of the best experiences of her life. She’s made great friends of professors and fellow students. On the day of this interview, she was setting up lunch plans with another, much younger student.

“UT Dallas has been a wonderful place for me,” she said. “It’s helped me start a whole new phase of life.”

Helen Small graduated from UT Dallas with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2007. She picks up her master’s in psychological sciences on Saturday.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].