In fall 2006, Nola Ochs left her farm in Jetmore, Kansas to attend Fort Hays State University. After packing the last of her belongings, Nola said goodbye to her family, promised she’d call home often, and settled into the car for the 105-mile drive. She was 94 years old. Every college campus has its "super-seniors," but there’s only one Senior Freshman. In the popular meme, also known as Senior College Student, Nola speaks up from her lecture hall desk, gesturing with a pen. With her sweatshirt on and her hair in a bun, she could be any undergrad, give or take 70 years. The meme’s overlaid captions imagine the foibles of an elderly classmate. “Laptop required for class...Brings typewriter,” reads one. Another jokes, “Bibliography references Reader’s Digest.” The most macabre: “Assigned as your lab partner… Dies.” Sure, it may all be in (ageist) good fun, but couldn’t be further from the truth. “I could still see well and hear well and drive my car,” Ochs, now 104, remembers. “So I just went to school like I was the same age as everyone else, and they accepted me.” At Fort Hays State, Ochs took a full course load, lived in student housing, and completed most of her work on a computer — that she could operate just fine on her own. Her chosen field of study: history. Because sometimes, jokes write themselves. Nola was like any other student — except for the media attention she received before graduation. She turned down The Oprah Winfrey Show to prepare for finals, but she did appear on CBS Evening News and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, where she gently dissed Simon Cowell. When Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius presented Nola with her diploma in March 2007, the entire audience rose to its feet. Nola’s granddaughter Alexandra Rainbolt, then 21, was right behind her, also dressed in a cap and gown.
“My grandmother has always been a part of my life,” Alexandra says. “But when we were in college together, we became friends.” The two took a religion class together, but Nola was the more disciplined student. “I was just trying to get through school, but I remember Grandmother saying she wanted to test well, because she’d been taught well. She was so motivated.” By the time Senior Freshman appeared on QuickMeme on July 31, 2011, Nola had earned a bachelor’s degree and a place in the Guinness Book Of World Records as the world’s oldest college graduate. She also received her Master of Liberal Studies degree at the age of 98, worked as a teaching assistant, and completed credits toward a PhD. Nola was eventually featured in the inspiring Pass It On campaign from the Foundation for a Better Life. In one TV spot she urges, “It’s never too late to pursue your dreams. Set a date to begin. Do something.”
Nola’s continuing education was decades in the making. She graduated from Dodge City High School in 1929 at the beginning of the Great Depression and completed correspondence courses at Fort Hays Teachers College in 1930. Then, she taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Hodgeman County, KS until she married her Sunday-school sweetheart, Vernon Ochs, in 1933. (At the time, only unmarried women were allowed to teach.) Together, Nola and Vernon survived the Dust Bowl, raised four sons, and ran the family farm. When Vernon died in 1972, Nola decided to take college courses to fill her time. At age 61, she started with a summer tennis class at Dodge City Community College. Then, she studied agribusiness marketing. Nola took a single course each semester until she learned she was three algebra credits away from an Associate’s degree. She got her diploma in 1988 and dreamed of graduating from a four-year university someday. In 1991, Nola decided it was time — she wasn’t getting any younger. She started taking classes toward her Bachelor’s degree at St. Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City, but the campus closed a year later. Nola put her education on hold for more than 10 years before calling Fort Hays State University to find out if her credits would transfer.
“When they said they would and that I’d need just 30 more hours, I told my family I wanted to move up to Hays for the school year,” Nola says. “So that’s what I did.” No one in the Ochs family even thought to argue.
“Honestly, I didn’t know how big a deal all of this was until other people started talking about it!” Alexandra laughs. “Grandmother has traveled around the world on her own and has always been up-to-date on current events and technology. Back in the day, she was the first person in our county to get dial-up internet.” Unlike many people who become memes, Nola was well-known before someone turned a photo of her into a viral joke. She and her family have seen the Senior Freshman meme, but it doesn’t bother them. "I’ve wondered if there wasn’t some truth to the one where she’s correcting the professor,” Alexandra says. “Grandmother would never interrupt anyone to be rude, but she’s a person who will speak up and say, ‘That’s not my experience.’ She stands by her convictions.” When asked how she felt about the meme's stereotyping of older people, Nola shrugs. Age is just a number — and she’s always been more focused on her GPA. At some point, she stopped doing the math and just started telling people her birthday: November 22, 1911.
But the meme does get one thing right. Nola is old — older than sliced bread, even, which was popularised in 1928. She was just a baby when the Titanic sank and was 8 years old when the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. She’s lived through 18 American presidencies, six major wars, the civil rights movement, and countless moments of human progress and regress. And, she insists, she still has so much to learn. At 104, Nola continues to live alone on the Ochs homestead, within five miles of most of her extended family. Her hearing and vision aren’t what they used to be, but her mind’s as sharp as ever. Much of her time is spent writing a memoir, which she has titled Nola Remembers. “Maybe I’ll use that picture of me on the cover!” Nola laughs. Her academic achievements are just one part of her story. “My earthly claim to fame is being the mother of Vernon Ochs’ sons — all good Christian men,” Nola says proudly. “I’ve enjoyed all the publicity, but I still wear the same size hat.”