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90-year-old woman becomes oldest student to complete coursework at the University of North Texas

By Ashley R. Williams, CNN

(CNN) — A 90-year-old woman earned her master’s degree and marked a historic milestone in the process, becoming the oldest person to complete coursework at the University of North Texas, according to university officials.

Minnie Payne, originally from South Carolina, finished her degree program in interdisciplinary studies online in July, according to the university.

“We use the term ‘lifelong learner,’ but Minnie truly exhibits this,” Billy Roessler, assistant dean of graduate studies at UNT’s Toulouse Graduate School, said in a news release. Roessler served as Payne’s adviser during her studies.

“Her persistence to complete her degree at age 90 is impressive. She had a purpose in completing this degree,” he said.

The nonagenarian and mother of two walked the stage at her commencement ceremony on December 17 in Denton, Texas, with her grandson, Payne Billings, escorting her.

“I took it day by day,” Payne said in the release.

Payne, who studied with a focus on writing, has worked as a freelance and staff writer over the years for publications in Dallas, Houston and other parts of Texas.

“Most writers write because they enjoy it. I do it because I love it,” Payne said. “I do it because it’s therapeutic. I do it because it gives me something constructive to do.”

Prior to earning her master’s degree, she graduated in 2006 from Texas Woman’s University with a bachelor’s in general studies.

Even with two advanced degrees under her belt at 90, Payne says she’s not done with education.

“In some way or another, I want to continue learning,” she said.

Early education and onward

Payne grew up in an “impoverished South Carolina textile-mill community,” according to the university. She graduated high school in 1950 and had a brief stint at a junior college before starting work as a real estate firm’s clerk, the university said.

In 1961, she married her late husband Dale and worked at the South Carolina Industrial Commission as a court reporter until her children were born, the release stated.

After several years as a stay-at-home mom, she resumed work as a substitute teacher.

Her family moved to different states before eventually settling in Carrollton, Texas, the release said. She retired from her 30-year career as a transcriptionist and word processor when she was 68 and enrolled at Texas Woman’s University. She also took journalism classes and a business course at UNT’s campus as part of her undergraduate studies.

“I had always worked with words, and I had always liked to write, so I almost immediately went back to school,” she said. “I wanted to improve myself.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Payne later returned to UNT to pursue a journalism master’s degree.

She switched to an interdisciplinary studies degree when several of her online courses began meeting in person, according to the university.

Attending college as a nontraditional student wasn’t easy, according to Payne.

“I really had to study and spent many all-nighters,” she said. “But I made it.”

She says she felt pursuing her master’s degree served to better herself and her family.

“I was improving my life,” Payne said. “Every day, I try to do something to improve my life and those around me.”

The oldest student to receive a degree at UNT was awarded a master’s in education in 2009 at age 97, about 30 years after they had completed their final coursework in the 1970s, a university spokesperson told CNN.

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