When the new Social Science graduates got their degrees Friday afternoon at San Diego State, Yasuko Fujii’s name was called first. That was fitting. She’d waited the longest.
At age 80, the Rancho Penasquitos resident is among the oldest ever to earn a diploma from the school, which is holding its 120th commencement this weekend. The ceremony Friday was for the College of Arts and Letters, which conferred degrees on about 1,600 students, most of whom had no idea about the woman leading her group of smiling graduates across the stage at Viejas Arena.
They soon found out. Unlike everybody else, more than just her name was read out loud.
“Yasuko Fujii has been waiting nearly 60 years to walk across this stage,” the announcer said. “She put her college career on hold in the 1960s to raise a family, but promised herself she would one day go back. At 80 years young, she is the oldest graduate to participate in 2019 commencement. Yasuko, you did it.”
The crowd cheered loudly as she moved forward. The professors seated on stage in all their academic finery gave her a standing ovation.
This has been her dream since she arrived in the United States from Tokyo in 1964. She attended San Jose State for four semesters, and then life happened. She met Yoshinori Fujii, also a college student, and they got married. They had two children, one right after the other. They ran several businesses — a restaurant, a trading company, a gas station — in various California cities. Her education had to wait.
But she never lost her interest in it. Even while she was busy with other things, she would occasionally take classes at community colleges. “I just like learning,” she said.
About 10 years ago, now widowed, she started her studies again, at Mesa College. She had no plans then to get a degree. She took one or two classes at a time, whatever looked interesting or was being held at a convenient time. History, art, physical education.
“I saw her that first semester and she was walking funny,” her daughter, Yuki Zeigler, recalled. “I said, ‘Mom, what’s wrong?’ Turns out she was doing wall-sits with the 18-year-olds.”
Fujii shrugged at the re-telling. “It looked fun,” she said.
After she’d gone to Mesa for several years, a counselor there, Gabriel Adona, looked at her records and told her she had enough credits to transfer to a four-year school. “You’re someone who just loves to learn,” he remembered telling her, “so maybe you should just keep going.”
She didn’t need much convincing. And SDSU seemed like a good choice: Her daughter had gone there, earning a business degree in 1995. Fujii chose Social Science as her major because it draws from a dozen disciplines, including two of her favorites, history and sociology. It took her 2½ years to finish.
Living on a fixed income, Fujii qualified for financial aid, but to get it she had to take a full load of classes — 12 units per semester, the equivalent of four courses. That’s a challenge for any student, and Fujii’s age brought added complications. To read the text books, she needed a magnifying glass. (Her family teasingly called her Mr. Magoo.) To hear the professors, she had to sit up close.
Most of her classmates, raised in the computer age, took notes during lectures on their laptops. She wrote hers longhand on paper.
She’d never done a PowerPoint until one got assigned. Her granddaughter, Lisbon Zeigler, taught her. In Japanese. (Learning runs in this family: Lisbon, a Bay Park eighth-grader, speaks three languages.) For another class, she had to join Facebook.
Fujii’s approach to all this was familiar to her family. She just hunkered down and did the work, regularly rising at 3 a.m. to eat and finish her homework and then driving to campus for classes, hat on her head, tennis shoes on her feet, backpack on her shoulders with a bagged lunch inside. “Study, study, study,” she said.
Last Fall, she got hit by another student riding a skateboard on campus and suffered a deep gash on her head that required an ambulance trip to the hospital. She rode the bus back to campus, drove home in her car, and got ready for school the next day. Her daughter, concerned about a possible concussion, made her stay home. But she only missed one day of classes.
Her professors tended to remember her. “She sat in the front row and laughed at all my jokes,” said Nancy Federman, a Sociology lecturer. “She just enjoyed being there, and she was a delightful student, so smart. She’d come up after the classes with all these questions, and we had some wonderful conversations. I learn something from all my students. I learned a lot from her.”
Lecturer Lindsay Parker had Fujii in her course on European History last year. “She drew on connections from her life experience to write some great papers,” Parker said, remembering one in particular on “The Artificial Silk Girl,” a novel about a young woman in Germany before the Nazi revolution. The central character is unlikable to many readers, Parker said, but Fujii dug beneath the surface for a more compassionate reading.
Something else Parker remembered: “I had no idea she was 80.”
That’s partly because Fujii looks younger than she is, and also because she doesn’t think age matters much. She hopes other people may find inspiration in what she’s done. “If you want to get a college degree, don’t give up, no matter how long it takes,” she said.
Now that she has hers, she’d like to get a job, she said.
“I don’t want to just sit around and get bored,” she said. “What am I going to do all day, knit?”
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