NIU’s oldest student set to graduate after 72 years

Joyce DeFauw will graduate in December.

Joyce+DeFauw+sitting+at+a+sports+game.+At+89+years+old%2C+she+is+NIUs+oldest+student.+

Courtesy of Jenna Dooley

Joyce DeFauw sitting at a sports game. At 89 years old, she is NIU’s oldest student.

By Elisa Reamer and Jaylen Conwell

DeKALB — The university experience for many students is a seamless transition from high-schooler to college graduate in four to five years, but for others, the journey is unconventional. Joyce DeFauw started her journey at NIU in 1951 and is now currently the oldest student attending NIU at 89-years-old after returning in 2019. 

Defauw graduated from Geneseo High School in 1951 and in fall of the same year, she became the first in her family to go to college when she enrolled at Northern Illinois University to study early elementary. 

“At the end of my freshman year, I changed to home economics because I didn’t feel I knew well, I didn’t know enough to teach,” Defauw said. “In addition, I took German and typing and bookkeeping, and choir and other things.”

Blast from the past

In 1951, life for NIU students was very different from today. The oldest operating dorm, Neptune, opened in 1955, which was DeFauw’s final year of her original time at NIU. 

“I was very young, carefree and first in my family to go to school,” DeFauw said. 

DeFauw decided not to live in the dorms because of cost, instead choosing to live in a private home with eight other girls who were called “town girls,” which was the nickname they received due to not living in the dorms. 

“We had a private entrance at the back door,” DeFauw said. “We lived upstairs and there are four of us in my room and then some other rooms had two girls or whatever. We had access to the basement where we could cook or do our laundry.”

 DeFauw worked at Lehan Drugs, 1407 S 4th St, on the weekends to earn money. 

DeFauw met her first husband, Donald Freeman, while attending school; “I went to church and a young man caught my eye, we had our first date on Halloween night.” 

Joyce DeFauw’s student I.D. from when she was a freshman in 1951. (Courtesy of Jenna Dooley )

DeFauw decided to take a break from school to get married and start a family. Unfortunately, Freeman died just three years into their marriage. She remarried Roy DeFauw until he passed after 5 years of marriage. 

She had three children with Freeman and six with Roy. 

“I had six children in four years because we had two sets of twins and then two single births,” DeFauw said. “So, I guess the reason I didn’t go back to school or anything because I was busy.”

Her big return

After moving into a retirement facility after hip surgery, one of DeFauw’s sons suggested she return to school. 

“And I thought well, why not? I don’t have anything else to do,” DeFauw said. “But I had to get a computer, which was an extreme blessing because of all this COVID stuff. We were confined to our rooms, they brought our food to us, we couldn’t leave, no one could come. So it really was a blessing in disguise.”

In 2019, 68 years after starting her journey at NIU, DeFauw returned to NIU. She will now complete her last semester in Fall 2022 before graduating with a bachelor of general studies. 

Time keeps progressing 

DeFauw said the hardest aspect about being surrounded by college-aged kids is that they don’t speak the same language since they are so in tuned with technology and she is not. 

“Do things while you were able because you get old and you can’t remember things,” DeFauw said. “Your health leaves you. So if you want to go places or do things, do it while you’re able.”