In just two weeks, 89-year-old Alma Kocialek will walk down the aisle at convocation and pick up her diploma, becoming the oldest person to graduate from York University.

The chatty Brampton woman says she decided to go back to finish her degree in Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies in 2011 after her husband died of cancer.

"I knit and I would never want to knit a sweater and leave it without a sleeve or a collar," said Kocialek. "I thought now's as good a time as any. I have to finish my education."

Taking fall and even summer classes, Kocialek would drive herself to the GO station and then take the bus to campus. 

"Sometimes I would come back in the winter, it would be dark and my car would be covered in snow and I would spend 15 minutes clearing snow off my car."

'It was a childhood dream of hers to get a degree'

Her daughter, Judy Brock, says she isn't surprised by her mother's determination and perseverance.

"It was a childhood dream of hers to get a degree," said Brock. "I'm a guidance counsellor and I put together a powerpoint for my students about my mom. I wanted to show them how she let nothing get in her way of what she wanted."

Kocialek started her degree at York in 1978, the same time her daughter was attending Wilfrid Laurier University. Brock says the two would help each other, but her mother had to stop taking classes in order to work. She became a student again at 84.

Alma Kocialek

Kocialek celebrated her accomplishment at a lunch with staff at York University last week. (Celeta Irvin )

"Most people were very supportive," said Kocialek. "There were others telling me, 'Why are you going back to school? You don't have to.' But those people are just negative or jealous."

At York, Kocialek says young men would hold doors for her and she got along with her fellow students because "everyone was in the same boat."

One of her professors, Jamie Scott, says Kocialek's presence helped keep the younger students in line.

"Whenever she talked, what she said was always considered and coloured with a bit of personal experience. Everyone always listened."

Computer problems didn't stop her

Like any university student, Kocialek pulled all-nighters scrambling to get essays done on time.   

Her biggest challenge, she says, wasn't the course material, it was figuring out technology.

"Once I was on the last paragraph and a blue light came on the computer and the whole thing crashed. I lost everything. I nearly gave up, but then I thought no electronic device is going to deter me from finishing this paper."

York University says it gets about 670 mature students (those who are 50 plus) a year, but Kolcialek is the oldest to ever graduate. To celebrate her achievement, the university organized a special lunch last week.

"I was thrilled that she was able to share her incredibly rich life with others and open up cross-generational dialogue," said Eva Karpinski, undergraduate program director at the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies at York. "The fact that she finished her degree is so inspiring for everyone."

A few weeks after her convocation on June 21, Kocialek will turn 90. Although she loves learning, she says one degree is good enough for her.

Her advice to the rest of us: "Don't let anyone else pull you down or say you can't do something, that you're not smart enough. Just don't let anybody else do that to you."