Never too late to learn: 65-year-old is St. John’s freshman

When Sheba Delaney arrived at St. John’s College for freshman registration on Wednesday, school representatives at each table greeted her and then glanced around.

“They would look past me to see where my kid was,” she said.

The 65-year-old had to explain: No, I’m the student.

Delaney, an artist, editorial illustrator and mother of two, said she enrolled in the Annapolis college to fulfill a lifelong dream. The Texas native lived in New York City most of her life and enjoyed success publishing illustrations in national magazines and newspapers and creating oil paintings inspired by the “utopian” advertising of the 1950s.

More recently, she started writing about religion but realized she lacked an academic foundation. She thought St. John’s could quench her desire for knowledge about philosophy, literature, theology and more.

“So I took my courage in my hands and applied,” she said. “The program at St. Johns is a mix of everything Western culture has been up to over the last 3,000 years. There’s nothing like it in the world.”

Unlike college students who choose schools and majors in hopes of becoming the ideal job candidate, Delaney’s goal is to improve her knowledge and sharpen her skills. She said she might pursue a master’s degree after, maybe even a doctorate.

“I want to be able to write better, stronger, more logically and be able to analyze and defend,” she said. “An education is something you’re ideally going to use to make you better at something you’d like to do. I really feel like I’m there for the same reason an 18-year-old is there.”

Enrolling in college for the first time is unusual for someone of Delaney’s generation. She said that’s because older adults are often afraid to change course.

“When people begin life, you see many roads open to you,” she said. “You take a road, and then you kind of think the other roads are closed to you … and they think that’s it.”

Not for Delaney.

“Either I have a bad case of still trying to figure out what to do when I grow up, or I just like to think my options are open until I no longer have the ability to choose,” she said.

Delaney wasn’t always this way. She only applied to St. John’s after what she described as a life-changing walk on the El Camino de Santiago, or “the Way of Saint James,” a 500-mile pilgrimage in Spain. That was a year and a half ago, she said. Two months later, she applied to school.

“Twenty years ago, I probably would’ve said: ‘It’s too late. I’m too old,’ ” she said. “I probably would’ve said that 30 years ago. I just suddenly thought, ‘What are you talking about? Why shouldn’t you? Why can’t you? Why don’t you?’ And I couldn’t come up with answers for those questions.”

Seminars start Thursday night, and Delaney said she couldn’t be more excited. But she’s also “petrified.”

“It’s a mixture of ‘I don't believe I’m doing this’ exhilaration and a certain amount of terror and hoping for the best,” she said.

Indira Cabrera, who graduated from St. John’s in 2016, said she recently met Delaney through a mutual friend and immediately felt a “kindred spirit” connection. Cabrera’s parents obtained GEDs in their 40s, she said. Others should feel encouraged to be lifelong learners, too.

“I’m so delighted for her,” she said. “I love how it’s her living her life authentically.”

It’s been a while since Delaney was a pupil in a classroom.

She came of age in the 1960s as the education system worked to desegregate. At the time, a man growing his hair long was considered an act of rebellion, and school officials measured female students’ skirts to ensure they weren’t too short. Slacks were not yet an option, Delaney said.

Until recently, she hadn’t practiced math since high school — a high school she said no longer exists, which made for a challenge in obtaining her transcript for her application. She’s been brushing up on her numbers for months in preparation for St. John’s courses like Euclidean geometry.

In terms of making friends, Delaney is off to a good start. With an off-campus home near the school, she’s already hosted events like a potluck with fellow students she met on her block.

St. John’s freshman Ali Kiziltug met Delaney in the registration line on Thursday. He said she won’t have any trouble making friends.

“I was excited that I wasn’t going to be the oldest freshman there,” said Kiziltug, a 26-year-old who served in the Navy.

“She has life experience, and I know you can learn a lot from that.”

Delaney said she appreciates the support from the St. John’s community and her two children, one of whom attended St. John’s in Santa Fe, New Mexico, making Delaney a “reverse legacy,” she joked.

With a family history of long life expectancy, Delaney said she is going to fill her remaining years asking herself: What else can I do that I was always scared to do but always wanted to do?

“There’s never a guarantee you can succeed at everything in life,” she said. “But when I get to the end of the road, I would like to know that I at least tried.”

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