Ninetieth birthdays are big events, but Joyce Lowenstein of Atlanta made her family and friends wait to celebrate when she turned 90 on April 25.
She had an anthropology final exam the next day at Georgia State University and needed to pull a late-nighter studying. There was simply no time to travel and meet family members who had all gathered to mark the milestone.
That’s how it’s been since she went back to college at age 87. Through GSU-62, a tuition waiver program for senior adults, Lowenstein has been taking two classes a semester working toward a bachelor’s degree in art history. She’s on track to graduate next year.
“This has cut off my social life almost completely,” she says, laughing. A demanding school schedule has her up early, driving from her Midtown apartment to the GSU campus twice a week. She has a rolling book bag that kind classmates will help hoist up steps.
She takes notes in longhand, and records them with her tablet for good measure. It’s not unusual for Lowenstein to stay up late at night studying and writing papers. She can be up until 2 a.m. when there’s a big test or an essay to turn in the next day. “I get my juices after 10 p.m.,” says the night owl.
The entire process is “thrilling” she says, calling GSU “Atlanta’s best kept secret.”
“The professors are wonderful. The lectures are wonderful,” Lowenstein says. “Everyone is so supportive of the students and so available to talk to you about anything.”
Earning a college degree has been a bucket-list goal of Lowenstein’s for a long time.
Her first attempt was at the University of Wisconsin seven decades ago. She was young, the world was at war and her mind was on a sweetheart fighting oversees. Her education was interrupted by marriage, then two daughters, followed by successful careers in design, interior decorating and antiques.
Beginning in the mid-80s, Lowenstein made buying trips to Europe to bring back antiques for her Buckhead showrooms. She learned the antiques business by relying on her own curiosity and a room full of reference books collected through the years. Since going back to college, Lowenstein has scaled back her businesses, turning the day-to-day decisions over to her longtime assistant Barbara Domir.
Despite career successes, Lowenstein still feels the sting of not finishing what she started.
“I always felt I was lacking in education,” she says, adding later that she “wanted to fill in the empty gaps” of knowledge.
Her late husband, Larry Lowenstein, a longtime public relations executive in Atlanta, always encouraged her to go back to school, but there was never a good opportunity.
When she finally made the decision, GSU was able to track down her college transcripts from 1945 and gave her a year’s worth of credits toward her degree.
Much has changed since she was in college the first time. Lowenstein has had to adjust to a digital educational experience. She’s given Power Point presentations, participated in off-campus study groups with other students and worked on animations.
On some assignments, she remains old-school. She never learned to type, so her essays and term papers are written by hand, then given to Domir to type into the computer. Reading assignments are posted online to be downloaded, and Lowenstein prints them all out because she likes to hold the papers and make notes.
Before she can receive her degree, Lowenstein must get over one last big hurdle: Algebra. Every student is required to take one math class, or test out of it. She has been studying for the seven-part College Mathematics CLEP exam on a subject she hasn’t taken in 75 years.
She frets and worries over every test, but makes good grades, says Domir.
After graduating, Lowenstein wants to take an online certification course and begin a fourth career as an art appraiser.
“I do look forward to graduating,” she said. “I hope I can walk across the stage.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.