UNC Charlotte student Bertha Dupre had an art history paper due last week, but her home computer was suddenly misbehaving.
She decided to write it out longhand.
“I don't have time to waste on this computer. I've got other assignments to worry about,” Dupre said. “It'll be OK.”
She's certain of that. Dupre is no typical student.
She's 87, diabetic and walks “slowly but steadily” with a cane.
Much of her formal education has come from working – in a host of government jobs, serving in the only all-black Women's Army Corps battalion stationed in Europe during World War II, and riding the rails for years as an Amtrak supervisor.
Along the way, she took college courses, but never pursued a degree.
“I didn't much have time for it,” Dupre said.
Until now. Last month, she enrolled at UNCC to pursue a degree in studio art.
She's not a night student, or a “non-traditional” adult student taking a course at a time to keep her mind fresh.
She's a full-time student. Four days a week, she packs up books and sketch pads in a rolling bag and drives to campus, where she sits in classrooms with students young enough to be her grandchildren.
Last spring, it took a granddaughter's graduation from graduate school to prod Dupre to finally seek a degree.
“Just for the sense of satisfaction. At my age, it's not like I'm going to go out and use it for anything,” she said. “I still have a little bit of brain left, and this feels good. I'm happy at it.
“It's not been easy.”
Little in her life has been easy, though it has mostly been fulfilling.
She grew up in Pennsylvania. When the country went to war, Dupre went to work as a clerk and typist in the War Department.
Soon, restlessness led her to what was then the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, which became the WAC in 1943. Her battalion, the 6888 CPD (Central Postal Directory), arrived in France in March 1945 as Allied troops liberated that country. She worked in the post office.
“The mail had bogged down, and we were put in charge of moving it,” she said.
Dupre was discharged that December and returned to government work, first in the Veterans Administration, processing paperwork for new schools for returning vets.
She also joined the WAC reserves. And in 1950, at the start of the Korean War, she was called back to service and spent a year at Fort Belvoir, Va., ordering food for the troops.
After that tour, she worked for the quartermaster in Washington, then Philadelphia. Then she took a job as a housekeeping supervisor at Bowie State College (now University) in Maryland. And for 11 years, she rode the rail on board Amtrak's Montrealer, from D.C. to Montreal, supervising the service employees.
She retired in 1984.
By then, she'd help raise two stepsons and thought it might be a good time to go to college. She started taking college-level art, English, creative writing and drama classes in Maryland. She did a little theater and painted at home, mostly portraits and scenery.
But nothing moved her toward a degree.
“I'm a person who believes that things happen when they're supposed to happen,” she said. “I just wasn't interested. I was doing other things.”
Wisdom to share
In 1992, searching for warmer weather, she moved to Charlotte. She continued to take classes at Central Piedmont Community College. Then after her granddaughter's graduation, a spark lit: “It was time to see if I really could paint.”
So she applied to UNCC's art program.
Barbara Seyter, the school's associate admissions director, was the first to read her application.
“When I saw her age, I thought: ‘Well, good for her,'” Seyter said. “She's thrilled to be in a university setting, and we're very excited to have her enroll here.”
Seyter added up her transferable courses and determined she's a first-semester junior.
“Our students will learn a lot from her,” she said.
They already are.
Junior Derek Tate of Pilot Mountain shares her American politics class and calls her a remarkable resource.
“We all benefit from her plethora of wisdom she has from her experiences,” Tate said. “She's able to connect the dots – telling us what happened before, to get to now. She grew up in the Depression and lived through the Civil Rights movement.
“She's just a blessing to have in the class.”
From the beginning, she has leaped into campus life. She was there for freshman orientation, looking into clubs. She's usually the first to raise her hand in class.
She declines offers from classmates to open a door or help her to her seat. She does allow Tate to retrieve her cane after class.
David Brodeur, her graphic design professor, said her “natural curiosity and zest for life” inspire him. Her questions, he said, are challenging, yet respectful.
“Her leadership and love of learning has enriched class discussions by helping other students open up and share their ideas,” Brodeur said. “She is the kind of student that all teachers hope for.”
She's submitted a portfolio to the art department and is waiting to hear whether she'll be accepted into the studio art program. Until then, she's taking core courses for an art degree – four this semester.
“So far, I've enjoyed everything about this experience,” she said. “Everyone has been so nice, so I believe I'll be able to stick it out. Except algebra. That may do me in.
“I was never strong in math – and I haven't taken any in 70 years.”