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A Lifelong Learner

A MICA Freshman in Her 70s Reflects on Her First Year of College

Posted 03.12.13 by mica communications

Student Ursula Populoh admires the dye work of her peers in the Fiber Department.

When freshman Ursula Populoh '15 (fiber) was first shown the fiber studios in MICA's Mount Royal Station building, the experience brought her to tears.

"We walked by a studio, and I saw a dress form," she explained. "I started to cry, because I wanted so badly to be here as well."

That tour was given to her by her daughter, Valeska Populoh '06 '07 (fiber, Art Education), who at the time was studying at MICA and now teaches in the Fiber Department.

"I was envious but not in a bad way. I was envious because my daughter could go where I would like to go," she said.

A native of Germany who grew up in the aftermath of World War II, Ursula dreamed of going to college. Beginning a family, running a business, and immigrating to the United States came first. Then, once she settled in America, the education of her son and daughter came next.

Her love of learning could not be denied, however, and her passion for fiber led her to take continuing studies courses and workshops; but Ursula wanted more.

The decision to finally fulfill her dream of attending college came with the help of a friend, MICA faculty member and past Fiber Department Chair Susie Brandt, during a year abroad in Europe.

"My final adventure there was walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela [in Spain]. Susie heard me saying I would like to do this, and she asked to come with me. So we walked for 30 days. We spent practically every waking hour together, and we talked. We talked about college, and how I wanted to go to college. I remember so clearly when we walked up this steep hill, and she said, ‘Well, go.' And I looked at her as if she would have lost her marbles. I said, ‘I cannot go to college, I am 70.' And she said, ‘So? You have the time.'"

Before she applied, Ursula talked to her daughter. "I asked her if she would be OK with me applying," Ursula said, "because, you know, if your mother is a freshman and you are a faculty member, not everybody is willing to accept this."

With Valeska's approval, Ursula began the application process, going through the same steps and experiencing the same nervous feelings as applicants who are decades younger.

"I stressed out when the time came for people to announce if you are accepted or not. I was elated when I knew I was going to MICA," Ursula said, and added, laughing, "Then the first letter came addressed to the parents of Ursula Populoh... Obviously, people are puzzled when they realize it's me being the student."

Ursula wondered how she would be received by students the same age as her grandchildren and smiled when she talked about being mistaken for a faculty member by her classmates. The experience, however, has been overwhelmingly positive, with students and professors alike welcoming her to class and benefiting from her presence.

"The exchange of thoughts of the perspective I have compared to my classmates in their 20s is really interesting. Because, when we talked about feminism, I can tell them what Germany was like when I was 20," Ursula said. "When I told them when I was a child-no TV, no anything-they cannot even imagine being without social media. I think that's really, really interesting."

Ursula plans to major in fiber, just like her daughter.

"I like things that are tactile. You can take knitting and embroidery everywhere you go. I do not like sitting idle. Growing up in Germany after the war, we didn't have any money so we knitted and sewed our own clothes," she explained.

Ursula said she couldn't imagine being where she is today when she first immigrated to America, when she found herself working as a stockperson at Macy's despite having previously run a business in Germany.

"Obviously, I'm delighted. When people think, ‘she's starting out as a freshman at 70,' I say, ‘at least I'm starting out.' People think if you're going to college, starting a new project or starting a new life, that if you are advanced in age, it doesn't make sense, because you should start early," said Ursula, who hopes to earn her master's degree and would like to see more people her age going back to college. "But on the other hand, it makes sense because my grandson knows that his grandmother wants to be 100, so I still have 30 years left."

This page was last updated on 04/06/2018.