Shirley Crowell is who you might call a lifelong student. Having long understood the value of education, Crowell, currently enrolled at Joliet Junior College, for decades has enjoyed the status of part-time student in order to keep her mind sharp and adjust to changes in her profession. Her constant desire to learn will soon reach a momentous milestone.
On May 17, the 84-year-old will join the JJC graduating class to receive her associate in general studies.
“I just feel so blessed that this is occurring to me at this time in my life,” Crowell said.
Crowell was born in Chicago. An only child, her mother died when she was four years old, and Crowell was raised primarily by her father and grandmother on the city’s south side. Faith was a large part of her upbringing, as was a quality education.
“I used to tell my friends that when you go to a new city you first find the right church and then go to school,” she said.
Crowell has taken classes part time at JJC since 2004. But her higher education career dates back to the late 1960s, when she first enrolled at what was then Loop Junior College (now Harold Washington) in downtown Chicago. Crowell was always balancing college classes, at no more than two per semester, with her profession as an accounts receivable/payable clerk. In 1982, then divorced, she moved to Boise, Idaho to be closer to her daughter, who was stationed in the Navy. It was there that Crowell worked for Heinz, which paid for her to take classes at Boise State University.
All the while, a degree hadn’t factored into Crowell’s goal. Further delaying that opportunity was the limited transferability of certain credits.
“A college degree wasn’t needed at that time,” she said, noting if you had the proper skills you could find work. “Whatever it was I needed to know on the job I would go to school and make sure I had it.”
Crowell’s competitive nature also played a factor in her education. She wanted to be the best at what she did, and recognized that to do so required routine professional development.
“When I started out there was no computers or things like that. That means I had to go to school and take CIS (Computer Information Systems), I had to go to school and pass and learn all the Microsoft software and everything. I had to go back and make sure I knew how to do all of that because I didn’t want the young ones coming behind me and beat me out of that.”
When her daughter moved back to the Chicago area, Crowell soon followed. In 1989, then a resident of Villa Park, she enrolled at College of DuPage, where she was on a degree path toward business. But that was hindered when she moved out of district to Bolingbrook and started to work more, first at Hewlett Packard and later NGK Spark Plugs. From 2004 until her retirement in 2011, Crowell worked as a receptionist part time for Community Service Council of Northern Will County. She then enrolled part time at JJC and started toward a new degree in general studies.
“They used to have instructor videos you could rent. I used to go to the library at Main Campus to pick up the videos and then bring back home to watch,” Crowell said.
Crowell appreciated the convenience. She was in her 70s and limited to driving during the day when the weather was favorable. Over time, lecture videos turned into online classes. Crowell felt better equipped to handle the transition than most her age, having spent her life continuously adapting to new learning methods.
For the classes that did require in-person attendance, Crowell was able to mainly take advantage of the offerings at JJC’s Romeoville Campus, closest to her home. Four times the age of her traditional classmates, Crowell always embraced the opportunity to hear their perspective.
“You learn a lot being among the younger students I think,” Crowell said. “Things have changed so much, that in a classroom setting I do not mind because I feel like I learn so much. A different way of thinking – things I hadn’t thought about I never would have thought of what they say sometimes.”
At 78, Crowell met Heidi Munsey, JJC associate professor and counselor who is based at Romeoville.
“She made an impression on me immediately that day,” said Munsey. “She shared about how she’d retired from two careers and she was wanting to finish her associate degree because she wanted to show her grandchildren that education is important.”
Crowell’s love of learning stuck with Munsey, who has often used her story to encourage other adult learners.
The two reconnected this spring, as Crowell was planning for graduation. Because her quarter credits from COD needed to be converted into semester credits at JJC, Crowell needs just .4 hours for her AGS degree. JJC holds its graduation once a year, so Munsey worked with the Graduation Office to get Crowell registered to participate with the Class of 2019.
“I had been thinking about graduating in the summer but then I talked with this wonderful counselor. Heidi helped me to be able to walk in May,” said Crowell.
Crowell will finish up this summer by taking psychology 101 online. But that doesn’t mean the end of her academic journey. While Crowell won’t fully commit to pursuing a bachelor’s degree, she sees no reason to stop. For now, she just wants to take it “one day at a time.”
“She’s doing this because she values education, loves learning, and wanted to lead by example to show her family that education is important,” said Munsey. “May she be an example to all of us to continue to pursue excellence and personal growth rather than settling into an ‘I’ve arrived’ mindset.”
Several of Crowell’s family members, including her two children, will be at graduation Friday to support her lifetime achievement. To her son and daughter, two grandchildren and three great grandchildren, Crowell’s message is simple: Don’t give up.
“Whatever goal they set for themselves just keep pushing,” she said. “I want them never to give up on themselves.”
JJC's 103rd Annual Commencement Ceremony is Friday, May 17 at 6 p.m. in the Event Center, 1215 Houbolt Road.
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