When Kendra Van Cleave graduated from Mills College in 1996 with a degree in history, neither she nor her proud mother, Loraine Downer, sitting in the audience would have guessed that in a few short years her mother would also be walking across the same stage participating in her own Mills graduation ceremony.
“I was really excited when she first told me she was returning to school. Mills is a great place that supports non-traditional students,” Van Cleave said. “She always said she was sad when I was in college, because it reminded her that she had to give it up for family.”
Although she was involved in other activities including raising a family, it seemed destined that these very activities would eventually lead to Mills.
A typical day for the 65-year-old senior history major is spent working at her computer finding theses for essays and poring over history books. The 2007 school year will be an especially defining point in the slender figured blonde’s life, since Downer will be accepting her undergraduate diploma.
“When I started mind-tripping about all the different things I wanted to do. I remembered this old dream of going to college and it was like a revelation,” said Downer. “That whole first year I was here, as I walked across campus, I would literally want to pinch myself to believe this is real–I’m really here.”
Downer jokes about some of the advantages to being a student at her age saying, “I’m not worried about what I’m going to be when I grow up-I’ve been there and done that. Money is not such not issue as it would have been before-I worked 40 years and have some retirement money. The other thing is no romantic angst -I can care less about a date on Saturday night.”
For her first three years, Downer lived in the Resumer Wing, a wing in the Ethel More dormitory that was designated for older and returning students to better assist them in getting acquainted with one another. She recalls the fall semester of 2003 as being a great entering year, with a large resuming population.
“One woman, named Jane, said to me, ‘I’m glad you’re here because I’m not the oldest anymore.’ That was great, I loved that. It was nice to leave your room and stumble down to your classroom,” said Downer. “I think that made a big difference for me, making new friends and just feeling apart of the community.”
Downer was born in Utah and grew up in a Mormon family as the eldest of eight children, with six brothers and one sister.
With such a large family, money was tight, and Downer’s parents resisted the notion of her going to college, instead preferring that she stay closer to the family home.
Downer’s own inspiration for college came from a high school teacher that encouraged her to further her education when she scored high on a proficiency test.
“I figured I would graduate and get a job like everybody else, so it was quite a concept,” Downer said.
Downer later married her first husband at age 21 and the pair moved to the Bay Area a year later. For the following 20 years, Downer took a variety of secretarial and clerical positions and had two daughters. She later divorced and then remarried.
After visiting the campus and meeting with her advisor, Downer said she came to Mills, “to be a part of an intellectual community and be exposed to diversity and exchange of ideas.”
She says she hasn’t been disappointed and is surprised that she was never treated differently by anyone.
“We’re all on the same boat, and I never felt singled out – I thought that was amazing,” Downer said.
Stephanie Motzkus, 34, sophomore, is one of Downer’s classmates in her Women’s Studies class. “She’s very approachable and witty, ” said Motzkus, “she’s very grounded when she speaks – it’s so nice to listen to her.”
Speaking of her college experience, Downer believes it has expanded her outlook on life and the world in general, “I felt so much of my world expanding just being here. Things I’ve never thought about before. I’m embarrassed about how unconscious I’ve been all these years,” she said.
Her current interests are social justice, women’s rights, and environmentalism. Downer said that she hopes to volunteer in and contribute to these fields after graduation.
“I’m really thinking about what I’m going to do next and what am I going to do with this education,” Downer said. “I’ve haven’t made any decisions. but I know enough to never say never.”
Downer’s family and friends are equally enthusiastic and are looking forward to the future.
“It’s great that she is doing it for her own purpose. She is the type of woman who really follows her dreams,” said Van Cleave. “I can’t wait to watch her graduate!”