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Never too old to head back to college

Betty West, 84, is working on the degree she started in 1941. Raising a family interrupted her studies.
Betty West, 84, is working on the degree she started in 1941. Raising a family interrupted her studies.
Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

Here's the reaction when Brigham Young University student Betty West walks into class:

"They all look kind of surprised because I'm so old," West said.

She's 84 — and turns 85 on Dec. 4.

The oldest graduate from BYU was C. Laird Snelgrove, who earned his Spanish degree in 2002 at the age of 91. His education was sidetracked by a career in the family ice cream business.

But West isn't far behind. West — whose maiden name was also West — was two years into her college career in 1941 when she married John Everett West.

She had two children and then in 1944 her husband went off to serve the Army in the Philippines during World War II.

"I didn't have a chance to finish my education," West said in an interview.

And she never went back, until recently.

After the 1997 death of her husband — they were married 56 years — one of her six children asked if she had any regrets. Her answer: Failing to finish her education.

"To me, it's interesting to learn what's going on in the world," West said. "No matter how much schooling you've had, you could always get more."

West has at least four more classes to go. Some she takes over the Internet or by mail, for others she attends at the BYU Salt Lake Center for Continuing Education on Highland Drive.

Two days a week she hops in her 1996 Chevy and drives to her Spanish 201 class, not far from her home in the Holladay area. Currently, her other class is History 319.

Since 2002 West has been trying to get through all of the requirements for a bachelor's degree in general studies.

"Every time I think I'm nearly there, they say, 'You've got to take another class,' " she said.

West still needs, for example, to complete a physical sciences class and a course in near Eastern studies.

Now the goal of earning a diploma is close — closer than 64 years ago. Still, even West can't believe sometimes that she's going to college again.

"I think I'm nuts sometimes," she said. "It's a lot of work and I have a hard time remembering — sometimes I think, 'Why am I doing this?' "

She downplays the notion her educational pursuits might be an inspiration to her great-grandchildren.

"I just hope they'll realize that it's an important thing in your life," West said. "You need to learn as much as you can while you're here."

What will this A-B student (and a few C's along the way) do with the degree?

"Take it with me into the next world, I guess," she said. "I don't know."