Meet a Shocker: A degree 56 years in the making


There were two Shocker milestones in 1964: Wichita University became Wichita State University, and a 17-year-old Martha Backman walked onto the Wichita State campus and began her college education.

This fall, a 73-year-old Martha will celebrate her 56-year circuitous educational journey with a bachelor’s degree in aging studies.

According to university records: Of the 88,349 bachelor’s degrees awarded by Wichita State, Martha is one of only four who were 73 years old at the time of their graduation. Nine other students have been older than 73, with the oldest Shocker graduate being 90 years old. Martha is in second place for the length of time to get her degree. Her 56 years is superseded by only one person who took 69 years.

“I lived in Wichita and graduated from Wichita East High School,” she said in a Zoom interview. “I was bright, and I was offered a scholarship to Washburn. But it didn't cover living expenses.”

But, as fate would have it, when the university became a state university, tuition was cut from $12.50 to $6 per credit hour, and “I was able to and do a payment plan, so that I could pay a portion of my tuition each month. It made all the difference in the world,” Martha said.

Though Martha was a first-generation college student, her mother set a strong example of work ethic and resourcefulness.

“My mother was a retail clerk, but I really did see that she was a very accomplished person and it didn't matter that she wasn't degreed,” Martha said. “She wanted me to be the first college graduate in my family.”

Martha was a self-described math whiz and took advanced math classes at the high school when she was just in seventh grade. But even though she had a gift for numbers, Martha said girls weren’t encouraged to pursue degrees or careers in math.

Besides, she said, “There weren't math classes to take because I'd already taken them, so I went to my second love, which was French.”

But in the 1960s, Martha said, there were four headlines: miniskirts, the Mustang, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and Vietnam. It was the latter that deferred her education.

“To avoid Vietnam, you needed to be married and be a father. I ended up being a part of that, so I began taking care of the family that I was creating,” she said.

Two years into her college education, Martha took a break from Wichita State to raise her son.

“I thought I would go back to school, but that didn’t happen for another 20 years,” she said.

At the age of 37 in 1984, Martha decided to give college another go.

“It was at different point in my life. I wasn't changing diapers. I was working, and I could see now the difference that a degree could make,” she said.

Living in the Kansas City area at the time, Martha enrolled at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. But this time, she took advantage of her acumen with numbers and took courses in accounting and economics.

I was about 20 hours short of a degree, but it was just always been hanging there. I felt unfinished. I found other ways to work and other ways to be content, but I hadn’t finished that part of my life.
Martha Backman, 2020 Wichita State graduate

“I enjoyed all those classes, but I can't provide an answer to you about why I didn't finish at that time,” she said. “I was about 20 hours short of a degree, but it was just always been hanging there. I felt unfinished. I found other ways to work and other ways to be content, but I hadn’t finished that part of my life.”

The motivation to make the final push came when Martha was working as a volunteer for Girl Scouts in 2018.

“I was counseling a teenage girl about what G.I.R.L. stood for, which is go getter, innovator, risk-taker, and leader,” she said. “It struck me that maybe I needed to counsel myself with the same advice.”

Still living in the Kansas City area, Martha had a comfortable job, where she was able to use her accounting talents.

“I was good at what I was doing, but I did need to take a risk,” she said.

Martha looked back into enrolling at UMKC and even took a look at the University of Kansas, but she said, “I felt like I was getting a lot of life messages” that were leading her back to Wichita State University.

“I took a day off and drove to Wichita. I met with somebody in advising. And, lo and behold, I discovered aging studies,” she said.

Martha had been a caregiver for family members and friends.

“I knew that I had skills and some understanding, and I thought it would be a good fit for me,” she said.

Being 73 years old while studying gerontology gave Martha a perspective that the other students didn’t have.

“Oh my gosh, the advantage of being aged at the same time that I'm learning about aging has been very helpful,” she said.

Martha’s experience in the classroom was very different during her most recent academic journey. For one thing, her program was fully online. Technology wasn’t completely new to her, but there was a bit of a learning curve.

“The work I was doing was accounting, and there were multiple programs that I used every day, so I was comfortable having to sign on to a computer,” she said.

Some of the Wichita State-specific programs looked different than what Martha was used to seeing, but she didn’t let that stop her.

“I made an appointment with my local library, and they have a something called Tech Tuesday,” she said. “I sat down with the fellow and had a quick 20-minute session with him. He was very thorough and resolved my issues.”

Martha said she’s reluctantly embracing Zoom, and she’s considering joining Facebook.

Despite being at an age when many might consider retirement, Martha says she still hopes to work and use her degree.

“I absolutely do hope to work,” she said. “It could be I'll get a job in one of these glamorous independent living facilities that I can't afford to live in.”

Martha was disappointed when commencement ceremonies were canceled due to the influx of COVID-19 infections. 

“I started crying yeah when they canceled. I think it's a responsible thing,” she said. “Not having the ceremony and not being able to walk doesn't take away from the meaning and joy of getting a degree.”

Read more stories like this