That’s the word that Sandra Baas kept coming back to as she reflected on the journey that led this 56-year-old mother of three to walk the stage at University of Northern Iowa on May 11 to accept her bachelor’s degree in elementary and middle level education.
Her story began anew when her divorce became final in 2011 at age 48, leaving a marriage she describes as, simply, “not good.” She had three grown sons, one still at home … and a change in attitude.
“I always wanted a college degree. I knew I could do it, I was a good student...but when you add 35-plus years to that, can I really?” she wondered.
Yes, she could. Taking night classes, Sandra completed her associate degree, graduating one week before her youngest son, Braden graduated from high school. He next enrolled at UNI, and Sandra followed 18 months later, resigning from her job as a church secretary.
Getting the college experience
"Everyone said I could get my degree online, but I wanted the college experience. I wanted to go to the library, talk to professors and meet new friends,” Sandra recalls. “I loaded up my car on a Sunday morning, with no place to sleep that night and headed to Cedar Falls.”
She found an apartment and new roommates while maintaining her home in Algona, where she would return each weekend to care for her cat. In her very first class, American Politics, she got a B. That was her last B.
“It’s a big difference with being a non-trad,” referencing the “non-traditional” category she enthusiastically represents. “It was my choice to be here. I was going to do my best. I wasn’t going to come down here and sluff off. I reached for the A’s.”
“It was so much more than I could ever have imagined. I have had the time of my life, and loved every minute of it. All the tests, the finals, getting homework in on time. I never skipped a single class ever, and read every single thing up to the last semester.”
Sandra was one of a handful of older students in her classes, but most were younger. “They just accepted me as one of them; I‘m so proud of them. We're all in the same boat, all learning. They definitely helped me. If they haven’t learned anything else from me, I hope it’s that you’re never too old to follow your dreams and do it joyfully.”
Final steps: student teaching
Sandra purposely explored outside of Iowa for student teaching. At her first placement in Colorado Springs, Colorado, she worked with middle school students in the talented and gifted program.
“It was so perfect, I was blessed. My teacher was phenomenal, he’s been recognized nationally and in his state and district. I loved Colorado Springs, loved the area, the school, my teachers and students; I felt at home from day one,” she says.
In her second placement, she taught math to sixth graders in Appleton, Wisconsin. She notes, “Some people ask, “How did you end up with Colorado and Appleton?’ Because you can. UNI will allow you to do that. It’s one of the top in the nation. Here you get different levels of experience; others don’t do that. That is preparing us not only instruction-wise, but experience-wise.”
May 8 was her last day in Appleton. She headed to Cedar Falls for commencement three days later. Two of her three sons planned to join her at the ceremony.
“It’s just been such an amazing, fantastic, phenomenal journey. I don’t want it to end. I loved UNI. I don’t think I would have had this experience had I gone elsewhere. It just feels like family here; the professors, the instructors were always encouraging, supportive-- they accepted an ‘old lady’ in the classroom who was going to question them!” she says.
She’ll miss the campus, a place she knows well as she began walking it daily more than three years, 18.3 million steps (and 65 pounds) ago. She’ll miss the shouts of “Hey, Baas,” from her fellow students while walking. But now her focus lies ahead.
She’s already had contacts about teaching positions in Iowa and Wisconsin, and Colorado still beckons. Wherever she lands, Sandra says, “I know UNI has prepared me, I can go anywhere; I know when they see UNI on my resume, they know I got a good education.”