If you were watching closely during commencement exercises May 2 at the University of Indianapolis, you probably noticed some diplomas going to folks who looked a few years older than the typical undergrad.
“My beloved Mom hoped that I would graduate earlier,” said Paul Severance of Beech Grove, who earned his Bachelor of Liberal Studies degree at the seasoned age of 75.
Originally from Watertown, N.Y., he was inspired by the activism of the 1960s and embarked on a life as a community organizer and issues advocate. He came to Indianapolis in 1976 to work for the Near Eastside Community Organization. A couple of years later he led the formation of United Senior Action, a statewide network for older adults to advocate on public policy issues. He served 27 years as its executive director.
Upon retiring a decade ago, Severance started looking for what to do next and decided to take some electives through UIndy’s School for Adult Learning. Though he attended college in his younger days, he had never earned a diploma, unlike many peers he worked with over the years.
“Someone would ask me, ‘Where is your degree from?’ ” he recalls. “It was always kind of embarrassing to me.”
Taking one course per semester for 10 years, Severance gradually earned the credits necessary to get that piece of paper. In fact, he did well enough to graduate summa cum laude, posting a 4.0 grade point average and claiming the School for Adult Learning’s Student of the Year Award. He also was inducted into Alpha Sigma Lambda, the academic honor society for adult learners.
Severance downplays the achievement, saying, “I met a young woman (classmate) who has four children and a full-time job. So it really isn’t fair.”
His family includes his wife of nearly 14 years, Robin, two children, two grandchildren and a recently born great-grandchild, but he’s not sitting around playing the standard granddad role. He is a member of the national Conscious Elders Network activist group and is co-chairing the development of Elders Climate Action, an organization for older adults who are concerned about climate change and environmental issues.
“I’m coming from a place of deep, deep concern about the world our children and grandchildren are going to inherit from us, unless we take action in a hurry,” said Severance, who plans to keep taking classes.
“I can’t say how grateful I am to UIndy and to SAL (School for Adult Learning). My life the last 10 years has been immensely enriched.”