Sophomore Gracie Tijerina is not your average Lark. At 63 years old, she’s a first-time college student, and one of the oldest students at Hesston College.
Tijerina likens her experience to being on a rollercoaster.
“I feel like sometimes I’m way up there and I’m like, ‘Oh! It’s so cool!’” said Tijerina. “Then sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, God. Help me what am I doing here.’ But it’s fun, it’s been fun.”
Originally from Brownsville Texas, Tijerina came to Hesston College three years ago to study Pastoral Ministries. But when she got here, the pastoral ministries program was beginning to dissolve. Tijerina became a Bible major instead.
So why did Tijerina wait so long?
At first it was to take care of her three daughters.
“I was married at one time and when I got divorced my girls were small…so I worked to raise them,” said Tijerina. “Once they moved out of the house and got married I had to take care of my father.”
Tijerina cared for her father until his death in 2004. Then she decided to wait until retirement before she would do something like traveling or going to school.
“I told my daughters ‘I’m gonna do stuff, I’m gonna travel’ but then I realized when I retired that 10 years had gone by and I had done nothing,” said Tijerina. “So I started thinking I don’t want 10 years to go by without doing anything with my life, I wanna do something.”
With the encouragement of her friends Tijerina enrolled at Hesston two years after she retired, not knowing if she would finish her degree.
“When I was here the first year it was so exciting and so challenging and so much fun,” said Tijerina. “I mean for a 63-year-old is was so much fun, so I decided ‘no, I’m here, I’m going to see it through. I’m going to graduate, I’m gonna do it.’”
Being an older student has brought a lot of challenges, both inside and outside the classroom.
At first Tijerina was worried what the other students thought of her.
“In my speech class, I had to do a speech in front of the class so..I don’t know why I felt out of place – I used to be a Sunday school teacher for the young people,” said Tijerina. “I guess thinking that maybe the students knew more than me so I felt like ‘they’re going to think I’m dumb’ or something like that.”
Eventually Tijerina connected with the other students.
“At first it was a little intimidating,” said Tijerina. “I felt a little out of place but then I started working with the students in projects or with the drama so I got to know them and became friends.”
But school didn’t exactly come easy. In the beginning Tijerina struggled with things like establishing good studying habits and learning how to use technology for homework. She was hesitant to ask for help at first, feeling shy and too proud to ask for assistance. Eventually Tijerina learned to ask the teachers for help.
“I’ve never gone to a school where they are so loving and so caring … I think the students are so lucky to come here,” said Tijerina.
The biggest challenge Tijerina had to face during her college career was learning how to accept herself.
“When I came here I thought ‘I wanna do this’ but I think I wouldn’t amount to anything,” said Tijerina. “I used to think that way that I wasn’t worth something, but when I came here God showed that I was worth something and that he loved me just the way that I was.”
This has not been an easy journey for Tijerina. Before Hesston Tijerina was shy, she was not a “risk taker.” Deciding to come to Hesston was a leap of faith for her.
“I think God had to take me out of my comfort zone in order to start changing me, and when I first felt the idea of coming to Hesston I was like no,” said Tijerina. “I had never traveled by myself, I had never done things by myself.”
Friends and family of Tijerina have noticed a dramatic change in her.
“My friends around Hesston would say ‘you’re so different. ‘You’re not like the Gracie we met when we used to go to South Texas,” said Tijerina. “People say I was a Gracie when I got here and now I’m Grace.”