Midway through her freshman year at college, 17-year-old Helen Peterson took an extended break between semesters. When she returned, she was a grandmother in her 60s.
Peterson, now Helen Peterson Tredway of Downey, began her college career at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1933, where she wore felt plush hats, gloves and dresses to class.
In the next four decades, she moved to California, married Harold Tredway, and raised three daughters before returning to college as a second-semester freshman at California State University, Fullerton, in 1977.
"The longer you stay away, the harder it is to go back. You lose confidence," Tredway, now 69, said in an interview.
New View of World
Tredway's college education, which took more than seven years to complete, has changed her mind on many issues and given her a new way of looking at the world. As a college student in the 1930s, she said she, like many in her generation, was most concerned about the global spread of communism.
"I used to think it was America right or wrong, but going back to school and studying history and political science and other subjects, why I find out that America has not been on the up and up," she said.
"They've been very imperialistic and they have made a lot of mistakes and a lot of enemies, some of which they've brought upon themselves."
A lifelong registered Republican, Tredway said her sympathies now lie with the Democrats. Three years after going back to college, she voted for Jimmy Carter for President, and in 1984 for Walter F. Mondale. Voting is about as activist as she gets, she admitted, unless you count baby sitting for her grandchildren while her daughter, Ginger Osborne of South Laguna, attends meetings of the peace group Beyond War.
Tredway's political shift has led to numerous differences with her husband, a retired lawyer and conservative Republican, who said he can count on two fingers the number of Democrats that he has voted for as President, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.
"Let me tell you one thing college has done for Helen," said Harold Tredway, 66. "Come election time she would hand me a sample ballot and say, 'Here, mark my ballot for me,' and I'd mark it and I used to have reasonable belief that she voted the way I marked it."
"Now she still hands me her sample ballot and asks me to mark it for her and I still do, but I have extreme doubts that she votes the way I mark it."
Helen Tredway said she wishes America would "get out of Central America. We're trying too hard to manipulate all the countries in the world, and I think we have to let them decide for themselves" what type of government to have, she said.
In spite of their differences on political matters, Harold Tredway said he is happy his wife returned to school. College has made Helen Tredway more "broad-minded," especially when compared to other people her age, her husband said.
"We have friends who make me look like a flaming liberal," he said, adding that this year, he began classes at Claremont Graduate School pursuing a master's degree in history.
As a grandmother on campus, Tredway said she found that more has changed at college than just fashion.
Students back at Omaha in the 1930s were "more serious" than today's students, she said. In 1933, "We didn't break the rules. You didn't think of being late for class because you didn't want to bring shame on your family."
Requirements Easier Now
Tredway said students at Nebraska in the 1930s also had stricter requirements, such as three years of math, two years of a foreign language, and four years of English.
At Cal State Fullerton, Tredway said she was treated well by some students and ignored by others.
"The more mature students could view me as a person whereas the students who were not as mature, why they ignored me," she said, adding that many students wondered "What's an old biddy like that doing here?"
The presence of senior citizens such as Tredway on college campuses is unusual but not unique, said Jerry Keating, the university's director of public affairs. In fact, at Cal State Fullerton, Tredway was the second oldest graduate last May, next to a Corona woman who was 71, Keating said.
Tredway said she originally planned to return to school before becoming a grandmother.
"Harold was going to get his law degree and then I was going to finish my college education," she said. But within six weeks after the couple met while fox-trotting at Ocean Park, the United States declared war on Japan and Harold was drafted.
Tredway said she decided to return to school while serving as a volunteer for the Downey Women's Club, where her responsibilities were to encourage older women to return to school. "Guess who I talked into going back to school--myself," she said.
As a student at Cal State Fullerton, Tredway said she did not think her grades would matter to her.
Grades Still Important
"I kept thinking, 'Well, I'm not going to graduate school so if I get a B or C, what difference does it make,' " she said. "But before I'd know it, I'd maybe get an A in my first exam and then I'd break my neck all semester long because I had to try to keep up an A."
"After school was over she would hit that mailbox everyday to look and see if her grades were in it," her husband said.
At Cal State Fullerton, Tredway graduated with a 3.2 grade average, an improvement over a slow start in her freshman year at Nebraska. Her 1933 college report card shows Bs in biology and psychology 1, and Cs in English, French and gym.
As a psychology major, Tredway said the most valuable knowledge she acquired was an understanding of different people. She recalled the day in psychology class when four homosexuals came to class to talk to students about their lives.
As a girl growing up in Nebraska, she remembers being taught that homosexuals were immoral. "In the Bible, they said that you were sinful (if homosexual), but they also said that if you had leprosy or insanity, why you were full of sin too," she said, adding that she now is more "sympathetic to homosexuals."
"The more education you have, the more tolerant you are of other people," she said.