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More than 60 years after starting, two earn bachelor’s degrees
More than 60 years after starting, two earn bachelor’s degreesApril 29, 2008Kelly Homan Rodoskikahoman@syr.edu
Clifford English and Donald Oken both entered Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences in the 1940s. Each planned to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, English in political science and Oken in biology. After completing several semesters of coursework, circumstances prompted each man to leave SU and move in other directions. On May 11, at Syracuse University’s 154th Commencement, both will become SU alumni as they receive the bachelor’s degrees they each began working on more than 60 years ago.
English, the first in his family to go to college, came to SU in 1947 on the G.I. Bill after serving in the Navy in World War II. He took a full load of courses while working in a local diner six nights a week to support his wife, Geraldine, and their young son. The pressure of balancing a full-time academic load with work and a young family soon became too much, though.
English decided to cut back. He took courses here and there for several years, but eventually came to a point where the demands of his job took precedence. English was a senior investigator in New York State’s Identification and Intelligence Agency from 1968 to 1991. The job required him to travel, and to constantly learn new things, such as computer technology. “I just got to the point where I couldn’t take classes anymore,” he says. “By that time it was costing me money (he was no longer under the G.I. Bill), and it was more of a burden than a benefit.”
After his wife’s death in 2006, English’s family, which includes two children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, gently nudged him to finish his degree, for which he needed nine credits. In the spring of 2007, at age 82, he took his first course in more than 30 years, through University College. “I didn’t know if I could do it at my age with the time off from the university setting,” he says. But he soon settled into the routine of being a student, writing papers and studying in E.S. Bird Library. He took a course on Islam in the fall 2007 semester, and, with three credits awarded to him for life experience, reached the total of credits needed for his bachelor’s degree. He will take part in UC’s annual convocation on May 8 and even ordered a class ring, which he received during a ring ceremony in Hendricks Chapel on April 18, his 83rd birthday.
Oken started his studies at SU at age 16 in 1944. He completed the equivalent of three years worth of study in less than two years. With the country at war and in urgent need of medical doctors, Oken applied and was accepted early at Harvard Medical School before his 18th birthday.
After graduating from Harvard in 1949, Oken trained in a Boston hospital in internal medicine. His interest, though, was in how the mind works and in psychosomatic medicine, the interface of the mind and medicine. After a tour of duty in the Army during the Korean conflict, Oken trained in psychosomatic medicine in Rochester and in psychiatry in Chicago. He served as the chair of psychiatry at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse from 1968-1983, and in academic positions at the University of Pennsylvania and in North Carolina. During his long and distinguished career, he also served as president of the American Psychosomatic Society and two five-year terms as editor of the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine.
Oken’s wife, Linda, a graduate of SU’s former College for Human Development, and their children contacted SU about awarding Oken his bachelor’s degree for his 80th birthday. By transferring some of the credits Oken earned at Harvard, his bachelor’s degree requirements at SU were met. Oken’s family “very, very pleasantly surprised” him with the news of his impending bachelor’s degree, in biology, at dinner last Thanksgiving. Oken hopes to travel to Syracuse for Commencement.
Beyond the satisfaction of receiving their bachelor’s degrees, English and Oken both say the milestone will help abate some of the good-natured ribbing they have endured from their families over the years.
English says he holds his own at the “know-it-all breakfast” his family has each Sunday, where he is surrounded by his University-educated progeny. Oken says, “My family would often tease me about being a college dropout. They can’t do that anymore.”