[UTA Magazine]


A tale of two sophomores
She's 15. He's 85. Both are serious in their quest for knowledge.
by Sherry Wodraska Neaves

Charles Johnson and Jocelyn ZeeAlthough 70 years Jocelyn Zee's senior, Charles Johnson refuses to be categorized and stereotyped. "I'm just a person, and as long as I'm here, I'm part of this generation," he says.

Two students, both small in stature and totally focused on learning, attend classes at UTA. They both sit near the front of the lecture hall, taking careful notes. Professors praise their work and class participation. In fact, sophomores Jocelyn Zee and Charles Johnson have a lot in common—except their ages.

At 15, Zee is the youngest full-time student on campus. At 85, Johnson is the oldest student. While Zee studies biology, chemistry and physics in her pre-med classes, Johnson follows up on his World War II experiences in the Communication Department.

To his classmates, Johnson is a living textbook. When his U.S. history class covered Depression-era farming and sharecropping, Instructor Allen Repko invited Johnson to discuss the subjects from a first-person view.

"He did a 15-minute report on sharecropping," Dr. Repko said. "The other students were really impressed. When he finished, they gave him an enthusiastic ovation."

Charles Johnson

"He's always surrounded by students. He cares about them, and it's clear they really like him. At one point he said to me, 'This is my life.'"
—Communication Department Chair Karin McCallum on
Charles Johnson

A discussion in Johnson's communication class resulted in another revelation. When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Johnson was a communications specialist. Most of the work was done with radio equipment, but he also sometimes employed a more primitive messaging system—carrier pigeons.

"He kept a cage of carrier pigeons," communication Chair Karin McCallum said. "When he related his experiences to my class, the students were just astonished. They were amazed that someone had lived through such a time."

A part of the history he studies

Born in Houston, Johnson grew up on a Southeast Texas farm. During the Depression, he moved to the Birdville area, north of Fort Worth. There he joined the Texas National Guard and finished high school.

"During those days I was doing whatever I could for work," he recalled. "You had to really hustle back then just to survive."

After Pearl Harbor and the United States' entrance into World War II, Johnson and his unit became part of the fledgling U.S. Air Force and soon headed out for their first assignment.

"We didn't really know where we were going to be stationed until we got there," he said. "We hopped from air base to air base on our way: Louisiana to Florida to Puerto Rico to South America to Ascension Island in the Atlantic. Then we went up the west coast of Africa and finally to England."

Charles Johnson

Charles Johnson


At every stop they received orders to the next location, but no farther. That way no one could accidentally reveal classified information about troop movements.

In June 1944, Johnson was part of the massive D-Day invasion of France, and he remained in Europe until V-E Day, May 8, 1945.

"I was on my way home three days after the Germans surrendered," he said.

Like many returning soldiers, Johnson started college in 1945, attending classes at TCU. But it wasn't long before he had to quit and go to work full time. He didn't return to school for more than 50 years, enrolling at UTA in 1997.

"I was retired, and I got tired of just sitting there," he said. "So I decided to go back to school. I don't have any particular goal, no purpose for it except personal enrichment. By just being here, I've learned things about myself that are positive and have helped me."

Mature beyond her years

Although she doesn't yet have the wealth of life experiences enjoyed by Johnson, Zee also sees college life as a positive.

Home-schooled from the fourth grade on, she took her first UTA classes at age 13. As youngsters, Jocelyn and her older sister, Jacqueline (who started UTA at 14 and will graduate this summer at 18) wanted more challenges than were available at school. Their mother, Margaret, began teaching them at home.

Jocelyn throwing pie

Jocelyn Zee delivers a whip cream pie during the Science Constituency Council's end-of-semester party.

"We didn't really plan for them to go to college so early," Margaret Zee said. "But once we were working at home, we had so much more time to learn. I gave them more and more to do to keep them busy. They advanced really quickly."

Jocelyn said college friends call her a "brainchild, but not socially retarded."

"Actually, my friends don't care about my age. I just make it clear that I'm here to learn, like everybody else. Once you get your brain stimulated, you can learn just about anything."

Margaret Zee graduated from UTA in 1992 with a degree in accounting, so when her daughters' academic needs outgrew their home school, she looked to her alma mater for help.

"Jocelyn wanted to be a doctor," she explained. "I've always loved UTA, and I kept thinking about the school and about science and how to get her the experience she needed."

With Jocelyn's strong SAT scores in hand, Margaret approached Ed Morton, assistant dean of the UTA College of Science. "I talked to Ed and told him that I had a child who was only 13 but who got a 1330 on the SAT. That's how it all began."

Two years later, Jocelyn can't imagine things turning out any differently.

"If I think of being in high school right now, I shudder," she said. "It's not a pretty picture."

Starting college at 13 did put a damper on some of Jocelyn's non-academic pursuits. Prior to enrolling at UTA, she spent hours each day in the dance studio and at age 11 was dancing in a professional company.

"I was accepted into the American Ballet Theatre's summer program, but I wasn't old enough to live alone in the dorm in New York City," she said.

She also plays the flute and even while carrying a full course load has continued to perform with the Flower Mound Community Orchestra.

Still, the fact remains that most people her age are in high school. And Dale Wasson, UTA's associate vice president for Student Enrollment Services, says that's likely to remain the norm.

Jocelyn Zee

Jocelyn Zee


Bucking the trends

The usual assumptions simply do not apply with precocious students like Jocelyn Zee.

"There's nothing quite standard about admitting very young students," Dr. Wasson explained. "Each one is handled on an individual basis. We're obviously looking for a strong academic record, but there's more to it than that."

Generally, parents or school officials contact the University on behalf of the applicant. Then admissions counselors review transcripts and test scores to complete a preliminary evaluation. If everything looks good on paper, the University meets with the family.

"The parents have to be comfortable with putting a very academically advanced student into a situation where the other students may be much more advanced in their psychosocial development," Dr. Wasson said. "There are benefits and costs that have to be weighed."

The nation's youngest college student is Michael Kearney, who enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College when he was only 6 years, 7 months old. He made the Guinness Book of World Records after graduating from the University of South Alabama at age 10, earning a bachelor's degree in anthropology. He followed that with a master's in biochemistry, graduating at age 14 from Middle Tennessee State University.

In 1997, just 2.4 percent—or 353,000 of the 14.5 million high school-aged students in America—were enrolled in higher education.

"These younger students are still the exception at almost every major college and university." Dr. Wasson said.

They're also frequently a big surprise.

"When I found out Jocelyn's age, I was just shocked," said Morton, the assistant dean of science.

"She's remarkable," he added. "I think she's going to be ready to apply to med school next year. She's very young, and many times schools view that negatively because they have concerns about maturity, responsibility and the ability to relate to patients. But with Jocelyn, I don't think it will be a problem. When Jocelyn interviews with medical schools, I think they will be very impressed."

Zee has impressed her professors as well. Chemistry Lecturer Gregory Hale taught her in four classes but only learned her age when she asked for a letter of recommendation and he saw it listed on the résumé.

"She's always in the top 2 or 3 percent of the class, every semester," he said. "She's always one step ahead of everyone else. I have no idea if other people know how old she is, but I've never had a student this young."

At the recent College of Science awards dinner, Zee was named Science Constituency Council Officer of the Year and also received the Josephine Porter Memorial Scholarship, an award for pre-med majors.

"I talked with her parents at the awards dinner, and they thanked me for helping her," Dr. Hale said. "Mostly my help has been to say, 'Jocelyn, go do this,' and she does it."

Not only does she work hard in class, Zee also takes her extracurricular activities seriously. She designed (and redesigned) the constituency council's Web page and this year is serving as co-president of the organization. Fellow president Rob Gagliardi characterizes her work as "very complete."

"She doesn't leave things undone," he said. "She cares about it. The position of president requires someone with good personal skills who can talk to people and get their input. Jocelyn can do that.

"A lot of people shy away from responsibility. Jocelyn doesn't."

Johnson doesn't shy away, either.

"The Fort Worth Star-Telegram came out and did a feature on Charles," Dr. McCallum said. "In the picture he was just surrounded by pretty girls. And that's the way it usually is. He's always surrounded by students. He cares about them, and it's clear they really like him. At one point he said to me, 'This is my life.' "

Like Zee, Johnson has few peers in his age group at colleges across the nation. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics and the Census Bureau, the number of U.S. college and university students over the age of 35 has increased from 11.7 percent in 1980 to 20.8 percent in 2001. Yet the number of students in their 80s remains minuscule. But that doesn't faze UTA's star octogenarian.

"I refuse to be categorized and stereotyped," Johnson said. "I'm just a person, and as long as I'm here, I'm part of this generation."

Although Johnson isn't sure when he will graduate, Zee plans to finish her undergraduate work in spring 2004. She wants to attend medical school in Texas, preferably The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas, and she may specialize in surgery. In the meantime, she's learning to drive so that she can commute to campus on her own.

And she likely would agree with Johnson when he says, "Anyone at any age can go to school if they're interested in it. It's good to keep your mind busy. That's the way to stay around. If you become disinterested, you go downhill fast. I'm going to put that off as long as I can."


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