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College degree at age 63 gives graduate new hope

May 25, 2017

KOKOMO, Ind. — Cheryl Ferwerda became a college student at age 58, determined to earn some kind of certification that would allow her to return to the workforce as quickly as possible.

“Four hours after I filed for unemployment, I was enrolled in college,” she said. “I wasn’t even sure I could make it through one class. I was living with my mom, I’d been homeless, and I didn’t have a job. I knew how to run the software at my company, but other than that, I didn’t even know how to cut and paste on the computer.”

She’s come a long way since that day — Ferwerda, from Marion, graduated from Indiana University Kokomo in May with a Bachelor of Applied Science, focused on health sciences. She plans to continue her education, pursuing a master’s degree.

A dream of providing holistic healthcare, focusing not only on physical healing but on caring for the mind, body, and soul, motivated her to continue long after she completed the certifications that originally brought her to school.

Ferwerda remembers the day clearly. She was sitting in church, after a hard week of classes, praying over the possibility of continuing on to a bachelor’s degree program.

“School had been really tough for me so far, and things had changed so much since I graduated from high school,” she said. “I’d gone back for certification, and now I was thinking I wanted more, but I couldn’t imagine what for.”

As she listened to music during the service, an idea popped into her head — what if she could create a health care center different from anything currently available?

“It came to me that Disney World is the happiest place in the world, so why not have a hospital there?” she said. “Why not a place where people could heal emotionally, physically, and mentally? I’ve heard about people taking children to Disney through Make a Wish, because all kids want to go there. As adults we still want to go there. It just seemed like the right concept.”

Her vision is a health care facility for people of all ages, not just children, providing long-term and short-term convalescent care, and a place for medical research.

“A Disney Hospital would be close to the happiest place on earth, so you can lift people’s hearts, spirits, and minds, in a positive atmosphere,” she said. “It’s not in the sense of what you usually think of as a hospital. The building will be very different from what you think of as a hospital. It’s a place people feel they have hope.”

The vision came to life for her one day while meeting with Melinda Stanley, IU Kokomo visiting lecturer in health care management, who was her senior capstone project advisor. Cheryl shared her ideas with Stanley, who grabbed a dry erase marker and helped her draw it.

“You have to have people behind you, supporting you, to dream of something that big,” she said. “It was so amazing. In 45 minutes, there it was, the ideas that had been in my head, on the glass boards in her office. I knew what people I needed in what key roles, and what it would look like.”

She presented her ideas at the annual student research symposium in 2016, with encouragement from Erin Doss, director of the honors program.

“I enjoyed talking about it, and I am very passionate about it,” she said. “People were very receptive to the idea, and I do believe it is going to happen someday.”

Cheryl is proud of her hard work, which earned her admission to the honors program. She is amazed by that accomplishment, noting that she is dyslexic and remembers struggling in high school, and never considering education beyond high school.

“You went to the factories and worked for $25 an hour, so there was no need for college then,” she said. “I wanted to travel, so I stayed with my grandmother in Michigan, and then I met my husband and got married.

The couple ran a successful business in Greeley, Colorado, as licensed building contractors for many years. After her husband died of cancer, Cheryl decided to move back to Marion, to be close to her parents.

Her mother has been one of her greatest supporters since she started college.

“When I told my mom, she said ‘Good for you.’” Cheryl said. “She said, ‘You’ve been a great mother, you’ve been a wife, you’ve been a caretaker, and now it’s time for you to do something for yourself.’ I couldn’t have done it without my mom and dad.”

She looks forward to the challenge of graduate school, and plans to apply the same determination to succeeding in that program.

“I worked hard for my grades because I know how valuable not just the grades are, but what you learn while earning them, what you take with you,” she said. “If you would have said five years ago I would be going to graduate school, I would have laughed. I was just there to get a certification and get back to work.

“I have blended my life experience with the education I’ve earned, and put these two together. Hopefully I can inspire someone else to believe that no matter how old you get, no matter what your circumstances are, you can challenge yourself to do anything.”

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 06/09/2017