Joan Janzen has led a somewhat unconventional life.
At 16, she dropped out of high school, got married and found a job in the business office of a telephone company. At 40, she enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserves, following up on a flier mailed to her son who wasn’t interested, she said, because he couldn’t swim and had seen too many John Wayne movies.
And now, she’s one of only a few dozen senior citizens enrolled at Vermont State Colleges, where she wades through the complexities of political science among students young enough to be her great-grandchildren.
“You can’t just sit around and do nothing,” the 78-year-old said during an interview at the Brownell Library last week. “I could read all day, but you have to do something or your brain doesn’t keep up.”
Janzen’s college résumé spans more than a decade and includes two degrees from Johnson State College in history and political science and a writing proficiency certificate stemming from a lengthy essay covering the War on Drugs.
Since earning her bachelor’s in 2006, Janzen has attended two classes a semester. This fall, she’s delving into American politics and a class on the Holocaust, which includes a visit to the Yiddish Book Center in Massachusetts later this month.
Janzen recently retired a beloved word processor after her grandchildren bought her a laptop, which she learned how to use with the help of a patient professor.
She also holds a likely-unprecedented record of 11-straight enrollments in longtime Washington County Sen. Bill Doyle’s annual legislative observation class, where students attend State House committee meetings every day for two weeks.
“I had one young man to me say, ‘This is my other grandma,’” she said, laughing. “They take me right in stride. I do have more life experience and I’m a pretty vocal person — I didn’t use to be, it’s taken a long time — but you have to stand up for the right things.”
She most enjoys Doyle’s frequent guests, a veritable who’s-who of Vermont politics, like former Gov. Jim Douglas or former attorney general Bill Sorrell.
A new addition to the guest list is Essex Jct. Rep. Dylan Giambatista, Janzen’s former classmate.
“I was in my mid-20s at that point, and I was looking around at a classroom where there was a lot of 18- to 20-year-olds,” Giambatista said. “I gravitated toward people who were not fresh out of high school.”
The friendship extended to car rides to Johnson, which Giambatista said were often filled with talk of Vermont politics. Knowing his interest in history, Janzen even lent him a few books, he said, like the “First Ladies of American History.” He fondly recalled the day she pulled off Route 15 to celebrate the semester’s end with a creemee.
Years later, Giambatista said he still values Janzen’s kindness in helping him work toward his degree and said her unique perspective contributed to the classroom experience.
“When I found out that she was there to take classes more out of curiosity and enjoyment, that added to my appreciation,” he said.
Though college classes might sound like a pretty expensive hobby, up until last year Janzen took advantage of a VSC policy allowing senior citizens to take two classes a semester for free without receiving credit.
The college system adopted a new policy last year, however, requiring people over 60 to pay half tuition and receive credit. For seniors, whom often live on a fixed income, the payments can serve as an impediment.
Enrollment data shows in the three years before the new policy, an average of 75 senior citizens took classes at state colleges. Last October that number dropped to 37.
Though she continues to work at a testing company in South Burlington, Janzen said the courses bring her a personal satisfaction she’s unwilling to give up. She plans to continue her studies until she’s physically unable.
Janzen currently owes $300 a month for five months this semester. She could attend the cheaper Community College of Vermont, but she prefers the beauty of Johnson State, she said, and brushes off any notion of auditing classes, which she could do for free without receiving feedback on her performance.
“I like to work for the grades. I’ve graduated with honors each time,” she said proudly. “Besides that, I can say to my grandchildren, ‘B’s are fine, but C’s are not. Come on.’”