School at 77
Author: Suzanne Pardington
Posted: September 16, 2015

Michelle Reed says no to retirement

MICHELLE REED retired from 45 years as an emergency room nurse, moved to Portland to be close to her grandchildren, and thought, “OK, what now?”

She had spent her life caring for others—as a wife, mother and nurse. This time was for her, and she decided to spend it learning about something she had loved since childhood: archaeology.

In June, at age 77, she became the oldest person to graduate from Portland State in at least a decade. Two of her grandchildren graduated in the same week—one from college and the other from high school.

Reed is part of a wave of retirees who have moved to Portland in recent years for the mild climate, social services and easy access to cultural and outdoor activities. College courses are a popular way for them to stay active and engaged in lifelong learning, says Professor Margaret Neal, director of PSU’s Institute on Aging.

Enrollment numbers at PSU reflect that trend: Students ages 65 and older have nearly doubled in the past five years, from 332 in 2010 to 561 in 2014.

Most older students audit courses for free; Reed is unusual in taking her classes for credit and earning a bachelor’s degree.

“I’m one of those people—I’m all in,” she says. “I’m either going to do it or I’m not going to bother with it .… I’m coming out with something at the end.”

That attitude served her well while raising three children on her own after a divorce, waiting tables and going to nursing school at the same time, and later working in emergency rooms from California to Saudi Arabia, volunteering in disaster zones and writing and publishing novels.

Archaeology seems calm by comparison. But going to college in her seventies had its own challenges. “It was hard studying at my age,” she says. “As you get older, things don’t stick as well.”

She credits Virginia Butler, Shelby Anderson and other Anthropology professors with encouraging her to keep going. When Reed would say, “Oh, I don’t know if I can do this,” Butler would pat her on the shoulder and say, “Yes, you can.”

“Michelle is an exceptional person,” Butler says. “She always provided leadership in classes, was always prepared, and always asked great questions. PSU is lucky to have students like her.”

REED TRACES her interest in archaeology to digging in the backyard as a child. She only read about it until she got the chance to work in Anderson’s lab at PSU. There, she spent hours sifting through layers of dirt and sediment, sorting artifacts and animal bones, and cleaning and cataloging tools from Anderson’s digs in Alaska.

“The idea of putting your hands on something that is 2,000 years old is amazing to me,” she says.

It is slow, meticulous work, but she enjoyed it so much she stayed for four terms.

“It’s something useful I could do,” she says. “I wasn’t going to go on a dig. I’d fall in a hole and they’d have to cover me up.”

Her sense of humor helped her make friends with younger students, who she says treated her “like one of theirs.” She liked being around them and finding out what their generation thinks. At the same time, her levelheadedness—gained from so many years in emergency rooms—made her a steady, strong influence in the lab, Anderson says.

“All of her knowledge and life experience bring perspective to everything she does,” Anderson says. “On the one hand, she knows why lab work is important, but also that it’s a learning experience and if you make a mistake, it’s not a big deal.”

MANY OLDER STUDENTS audit classes for free through the Senior Adult Learning Center, a program of PSU’s Institute on Aging. Some can’t afford to take classes for credit, already have a degree, or just want to learn something new, says Neal, the Institute’s director.

“We hear from a lot of auditors in the program that they simply enjoy being with younger people,” she says. “This is the perfect place to have those interactions.”

Now that Reed has finished her degree, she is continuing to volunteer in Anderson’s lab this fall and she might use her new knowledge to volunteer at archaeological sites such as Fort Vancouver. She lives near campus, making it easy to come back to campus.

Over the summer, she published her fourth mystery, Books of the Dead, about archaeologists in Egypt, and is in the middle of writing two more. She has her own publishing house for her books and those of other writers.

Her advice to others considering a return to school? “Go for it.”

“It’s such a mistake to become complacent,” she says. “As my English teacher from high school used to say, ‘Don’t rest on your laurels.’ Make new laurels.”

How to audit classes

PSU’s Senior Adult Learning Center allows Oregon residents 65 and older to sign up for classes tuition-free on a space-available basis. Popular classes often fill up with paying students, but PSU offers thousands of courses open to auditors. The program is supported by donations. For details, call 503-725-4739, email or go to

Suzanne Pardington is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications.


With a new PSU degree in archaeology, Michelle Reed plans to continue to catalog artifacts in a campus lab.