Published in the April 28, 2014 issue of The Mercury
UTD alum Helen Small had always dreamt of getting a college education. By 2010, she had walked across the stage twice to receive her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, having finally achieved her goal — 72 years after first setting out on her journey.
Small’s college career first began in 1938 at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio, where she met her husband Al while standing in line to register for classes. The two ended up in a few of the same classes, studied together, began dating and eventually married.
The pair left Akron after one year, when Small looked for a job, and her husband joined the army. World War II and the depression had hit hard after the two had married. Over the years, Small worked as a real estate agent, raised three sons and oversaw a homebuilding company for more than 40 years with her husband.
Yet, Small continued to add onto her education. She received her broker’s license from El Centro College. She eventually left the real estate field to work full time in their homebuilding company. At 84 years old, Small received her associate’s degree in general studies from Brookhaven College. But she never doubted that she would finish her bachelor’s degree one day.
“I always had that unfulfilled desire to go back to school,” she said. “However, many things intervened before I could go back.”
After 61 years of marriage, Small’s husband died at the age of 84. Small then decided it was it was time to return to school.
Small chose to major in psychology because it could be used in everyday life. Plus, having nine grandchildren required a knowledge of psychology, Small said. By 2007, Small had achieved her goal, and walked across the stage at the age of 87.
She then continued on to her master’s degree in psychological sciences, where her research focused on the elderly. Small interviewed about 65 people, many of whom were widows or widowers, in retirement homes throughout Dallas, Plano and Richardson. She explored each individual’s satisfactions, if they missed having companionship or wanted a platonic or sexual relationship.
“We found out that the women were much happier in the retirement homes than the men, because the men missed somebody taking care of them,” Small said. “The women would have enjoyed platonic friendships, but nothing more serious than that. The men were a little bit different.”
Then in 2010, Small walked across the stage once again to receive her master’s degree at the age of 90. UTD President David Daniel escorted her across the stage, and the pair appeared on national television.
While returning to school after many years is hard enough, Small’s biggest challenge was learning how to study again, and using computers and the internet. She was also apprehensive about how younger students would accept her in the classroom. Her concerns turned out unfounded.
“I was like their grandmother; they were so happy to have me there and they would help in any way they could,” Small said. “I had explained to them that using a computer was something I was having trouble learning, and so after class we might have study groups or we had tests, we’d get together in the library and they accepted me with open arms.”
After graduating with her master’s degree, Small then worked at the Center for Vital Longevity for two years, where she sat on the advisory board.
But after suffering a severe injury at home, Small resigned from the center. Her sons and doctors were afraid that she would never walk again. Small’s resolve, however, was unshakable. After taking a year to recover, Small is able to walk, and still drives to this day.
In her effort to give back to UTD, she began volunteering in the Special Collections department of the McDermott Library, where she files and archives important documents and photos regarding UTD.
“The most interesting thing I think I saw was the letter that the land (UTD is) situated on was donated to the university by (Cecil) Green and the people that were involved with Texas Instruments,” she said.
On April 3, Small received the Green and Orange Award for Alumni Service at the UT Dallas Alumni Awards Gala for her volunteer work with the Special Collections department.
She was met with two standing ovations — one before and after her acceptance speech, though Small said she was so excited she doesn’t remember the crowd on their feet.
At the gala, Daniel said he knew of two companies who were willing to back Small for her doctorate degree. Despite her love of learning, Small said she has no current plans to pursue a Ph.D.
What she is most proud of, however, is that her three sons and nine grandchildren have the same value of education. Her three sons are doctors, and all of her grandchildren have a college education, including some with post-graduate degrees.
“I’ve had a wonderful life, I really have,” she said. “I’ve been very fortunate.”