It’s the third week of school, and freshwoman Laraine Downer is
preparing for her first class of the day. Downer, fit, tall and
slender, stands in front of a mirror and runs a comb through her
salt and pepper hair. She puts herself together meticulously her
crowning detail is a necklace that is a profile of an indigenous
woman’s face, carved out of black stone. Her eyes reveal a wealth
of wisdom; her face shows a long life, rich with experience, one
that has seen more than the average Mills freshwoman. Downer is 61
years of age, the oldest entering freshwoman this year.
For most, returning to school at 61 years of age may seem
daunting and overwhelming. But for a woman who backpacked 1,200
miles from Mexico to Lake Tahoe at age 58, it’s just another
It was daughter Kendra Van Cleave, a 1996 Mills graduate, who
“planted the seed” of going to Mills, said Downer.
“Kendra helped me remember my fantasy of going to college. She
said ‘Mom, there are women with gray hair, in their fifties, living
in the dorms and going to classes here,” said Downer. She couldn’t
believe they would allow, much less want, women her age at
Older students are not that uncommon at Mills. Twenty-three
percent of the student body is over 23 years of age, according to
Myrt Whitcomb, acting dean of admissions.
“The age range for incoming freshwomen this year is 16 to 61,”
Downer’s dream of going to college began her senior year of high
school, in 1959. Her senior English teacher encouraged her and told
her she was bright and full of potential. Downer applied to Brigham
Young University in her home state of Utah. She was accepted but
was unable to complete her first quarter due to a lack of financial
and moral support.
“I am the oldest of eight children and my Dad put a real guilt
trip on me, and I really didn’t know how to get financial help from
the school,” explained Downer. She had to move back home to work
and help support the family.
When Downer married in 1965, she moved to Santa Rosa,
California, where she has resided for nearly 40 years. She left
behind her husband Paul, her pets Maggie and Spooky, and her
four-bedroom 2,200 square foot home, to move into a small dorm room
in the resumer wing of Orchard Meadow.
“I go home on the weekends to see my husband and maintain the
house,” Downer said.
Downer has worked in administrative positions at electronics
companies and hospitals over the years. Most recently, she and her
husband owned their own business, called Vineyard Industry
Products, in Windsor, California. “We sold trellising products to
vineyards,” said Downer.
Remembering her dream of attending college, she visited the
Mills College web site.
“After I retired at age 58, I took stock and wondered, where am
I going?” said Downer. “I e-mailed admissions and got back the most
welcoming message,” recalled Downer, who never considered applying
Downer liked the support, diversity and small classes that Mills
had to offer, but was still feeling apprehensive. “I got excited
and scared, then I told my youngest daughter, and she was so
thrilled,” Downer said.
She said that her biggest support comes from her two daughters
and husband. “I was writing a paper for English class the other
day, being really hard on myself, when Kendra reminded me that I am
a student,” Downer said, with a smile.
Like a traditional-aged freshwoman enjoying her first time away
from home, Downer said that she loves living in the dorms. “I feel
like a kid away at camp, like one of the girls.”
Ardyce Bryant, who lives in Orchard Meadow with Downer, finds
her focus and determination inspiring.
“Her enthusiasm for life is inspirational. She is always looking
for something new to conquer,” said Bryant.
Downer has set high educational goals for herself. “I want to
become more informed, so I can express myself better when it comes
to the issues that I care about,” Downer said. Among that list are
social, ecological and women’s issues.
“I want to find out how the world got this way and how I fit
into it. I’ve got quite a few good years left to make a
contribution,” said Downer.
Van Cleave said that her mother has inspired her because of how
much “she goes after it.”
“I would be terrified to go in the dining hall and sit with all
of those young girls. I guess that’s the confidence that comes with
age. As an individual, she is so successful. She is very aware of
others, extremely giving and generous, but so aware of what she
wants,” said Van Cleave.