91-year-old returns to school online at University of Arizona

Education | 31 Aug, 2017 |

Jim Chaffins has always loved to learn. Raised in West Virginia, he finished high school a semester early and enrolled at Virginia Tech. His college plans, however, encountered a slight roadblock: World War II.

“I’m a 91-year-old freshman at the University of Arizona enrolled in online classes,” Chaffins said, sitting in a common area at the La Posada retirement community in Green Valley, Arizona, where he lives. “I enjoy it very much, but, like I tell people, it’s not the destination. It’s the trip. The getting there.”

After serving on Navy convoy duty in the Caribbean, Chaffins came home to start a career and a family. He went to work in the printing industry, setting type on newspapers such as the Detroit News, which eventually led to acquiring, growing and selling his own printing plant.

Despite all that he learned during his career and service, Chaffins said one part of his life never felt quite right.

“I’ve always felt that there was something missing,” he said. “I don’t have a degree.”

When he decided to go back to school at the UA, he thought he’d need to start over. But then an enrollment counselor at the UA asked to see his transcripts from Virginia Tech.

“So I called the college, and I told them I needed a transcript,” Chaffins said. “And they said, ‘Yeah, that’s no problem. We can get that right away for you.’ And I said, ‘Well, there’s one caveat: We’re talking about the spring semester 1943.'”

The transcripts were found, and the UA accepted them. That’s how Chaffins re-enrolled as a freshman in history with nine credit hours to his name after 74 years.

Over his decades-long career, Chaffins honed his leadership abilities and picked up a wealth of practical knowledge, but he never acquired one increasingly prevalent skill set.

“While I was earning a living and raising a family, a lot of people were learning about computers, and that passed me by,” he said. “I’m carrying two classes, but actually I’m working on three: the two for the college, and one to learn how to do the things that are required on the computer.”

He reached out to Kami Merrifield, his UA Online student academic success specialist. Individuals in this role are dedicated to making sure that online students get what they need to succeed.

“He’s not afraid to ask for help, which is key to any student’s success,” Merrifield said of Chaffins. “We went through everything step by step, and it helped me build a mental script to guide other students through the same process.”

Merrifield said Chaffins already has been a contributor in his online classes.

“He’s definitely had an impact,” she said. “I’ve heard from professors that they love UA Online students because they bring interesting, real-life examples from these fields, and he does that better than anyone. It creates a really rich environment that benefits all students. Knowing there are people out there who love learning and are willing to jump into this challenge … I think it gives others the confidence to do it.”

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