IRVINE — It was a simple glitch on the computer screen, but for Dorothy Musfelt, her inability to use a UC Irvine classroom terminal sent a wave of fright through her.
As she futilely pressed the keyboard and stared in frustration at the rows of young faces working steadily at their computers, she felt out of place as a UCI freshman at age 65, and worried that she was fooling herself, trying to earn a university degree at an age when most people are retiring.
"I was terrified," Musfelt recalled. But then a smiling young classmate appeared at her elbow to assist, then another, then two or three more, and she suddenly realized "they didn't think I was so weird or different."
Today, Musfelt finishes up seven years as an undergraduate and will receive two bachelor of arts degrees: one in art history and one in studio art. At 72, she will be UCI's oldest graduate at today's ceremonies.
Like her younger colleagues, she endured the computers, the lectures, the final exams--even university housing where she lives with a 24-year-old roommate. And she recommends the experience to her peers. "If I have one thing to say to older people, it is, 'Come back to school. The students need your life experience and we need to be renewed by their youth.' "
Enrolled at UC Irvine since 1982, Musfelt lives in a modest two-room apartment with her roommate of two years, a 24-year-old creative writing major.
Robin Hudechek, who graduates today with a master's in fine arts, remembers looking at Musfelt's name on a list of perspective roommates and thinking that her lifestyle would be hard on Musfelt. "I was worried that I might make too much noise with my music," Hudechek said. "But Dorothy told me she didn't care, her hearing isn't that good anyway."
Living with someone old enough to be her grandmother "is pretty humorous sometimes," Hudechek said. "We have the exact opposite political views--I'm a Democrat, she's a Republican--and we know exactly what we're going say about politics before we say it.
"She brings such a different perspective, having lived through events that I've only studied in history books. It's not the average roommate situation, but we're good friends."
"People tend to stereotype Dorothy and she doesn't fit into those stereotypes," Hudechek added. "Dorothy is really a very young person, inside."
Julia Klemek, who taught Musfelt in a ceramics class this year, said that her oldest student fits in with her youthful classmates.
"I think she's great," said Klemek. "We chat in class about the role of older women in society and she gets along real well with the other students. She is much younger than her years."
For Musfelt, living on campus changed her view of today's youth. "These kids have helped me tremendously," she said. "I've found them to be kind when I've needed help and hard workers who are generous with their time if you need a hand."
"You always hear the bad things about the ones who party too much," she said. "But you don't hear anything about these kids who are almost killing themselves to get through school."
Musfelt, who served as city clerk of Laguna Beach from 1970 to 1975, explained she left the elected position for peace of mind when the political demands of the job grew too intense. In the fresher university atmosphere, "I lost a lot of my cynicism I had from being a politician," she said. "I think these students have convinced me that the future is not bad."
There was a point in her life after leaving Laguna Beach politics when the future didn't look as bright. Musfelt found the job market rough going for a woman pushing 60 and armed with only a high school education.
Despite her qualifications, she worked a series of low-paying office jobs. "Many employers will work an older woman like a dog and pay her poor wages because they know jobs are scarce for women in my age bracket," she said. "But we get just as hungry as any 25-year-old."
Living alone since she and her husband separated about 30 years ago, Musfelt settled into a rut of work and church, in a parish composed of elderly people, many of whom "were sitting around waiting to die," she said. "I absolutely hated it."
One way to stay young, she thought, was to go to school.
Her first step was to apply for assistance through a University of California educational opportunities program which counsels low-income and minority students on gaining admission to the university system. "I convinced them I was a disadvantaged minority," she said.
Musfelt sent away for her high school transcripts in Westport, Conn., where she graduated in 1937. She was almost too late.
"The school officials there told me they destroy them every 50 years and they were about ready to get rid of mine," she said.
After spending a year at Orange Coast College, Musfelt enrolled at UC Irvine. Her freshman year was "harrowing," she said. "I was nervous and I still dressed like a secretary. I felt that I stuck out like a sore thumb." But on a walk through the campus after her last final exam, Musfelt seemed to blend in as she hailed schoolmates to talk about classes and what the summer's activities would be. Musfelt will move out of UCI and begin looking for a university to pursue a master's degree in studio art.