Campus & Community

At 78, Dorothy McNeese finally gets her master’s degree

78-year-old Dorothy McNeese is believed to be the oldest graduate of DU’s University College. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

When Dorothy McNeese walked across the stage at the University of Denver Commencement ceremony on June 8, it was a moment decades in the making. At 78, McNeese is believed to be the oldest graduate of DU’s University College.

McNeese graduated high school in 1951, married, had children and devoted herself to her family. She began taking college courses, a few at a time. She started with correspondence courses from the University of California-Berkeley, then attended San Diego State College (now San Diego State University). In 1970, when her husband, Larry, retired from the San Diego police department, McNeese and her family moved to Palisade, Colo., where they had a farm overlooking the Colorado River.

In the late 1970s, she began taking courses at Colorado Mesa University (then called Mesa State College). McNeese finally earned her bachelor’s degree in computer science, applied mathematics and statistics in 1980, after her sons, Keith and Scott, had graduated from college. Over the years, she completed many mathematics, environmental and computer science courses and came close to earning a second bachelor’s in environmental science and technology in the 1990s. In 2005, she earned a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from University College. But she always wanted a master’s degree.

She worked for many years for contractors for the U.S. Department of Energy in Grand Junction, Colo., conducting field assessments, producing maps and writing scientific programs. Her environmental interests led her to the master’s level environmental policy and management (EPM) program at University College, which offers a hands-on learning approach through project-oriented courses. Graduates are prepared to manage a variety of environmental concerns, including sustainability, energy, climate change, and health and safety. Instructors often work in the field as well as teach, an aspect of the program McNeese found appealing.

She threw herself into her studies, spending long hours in the geography lab engaging with younger students. She was active not only in University College, but also in local environmental organizations. At the same time, she interned as a cartographic technician for the U.S. Forest Service, where she prepared visitor maps.

“I believe what you learn in the environmental policy and management courses are things that everyone should know. If we are going to survive on this planet, there are some changes we need to make,” McNeese says. “We’re certainly going to have to start using more renewable energy rather than using coal, gas and oil. It concerns me that a lot of people just aren’t aware of this, or if they hear about it, they don’t believe it. Like any other science, climate change is not proven … but based on what I have read, I think it’s something we’d better pay attention to and get on it fast.”

In 2008, McNeese was a student in Larry Mugler’s online land-use planning course. One of the assignments was a research paper about land-use history that explained how the character of a community has changed over time.

“She wrote hers on the area around Palisade, on the Western Slope,” says Mugler, who teaches an environmental law course in the EPM program. “It was interesting to see that she had [lived] in that area with all the changes in orchards and the oil shale industry affecting that environment. That was an interesting land-use history for me to read.”

Before finishing the EPM program, McNeese learned she had cancer. In 2009, she had surgery and chemotherapy, and the following year she had radiation treatments. As soon as she was able, she returned to finish her remaining courses and capstone project.

Now that she has her long-coveted degree in hand, McNeese is seeking opportunities to apply her knowledge in the environmental field.

“I would like to find paying work, but I realize that at my age that may not be possible. I am going to consider doing volunteer work,” she says.

Paula Demos, senior manager of advising and enrollment for the EPM program, says McNeese is an inspiration.

“I think it shows our other students what they can accomplish. If someone of her age and experience can come back to school and learn and hope and dream for jobs … it shows that they can do it, too. That you are never too old,” Demos says.

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