78-year-old Helen Yates King is redefining what it means to have an older moment. A month before her 79th birthday, she has just completed her first semester of college at the Southern Regional Technical College (SRTC). Neatly dressed in the soft blue scrubs of her program, she talks about her college days with unbroken glee. “Going to college was the greatest pleasure I have ever had. I just enjoy it more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. “
College was not a consideration when she was a younger woman. In high school, she admits that she wasn’t particularly focused on her studies. “Little was expected of girls back then, except to be good housewives.” By the time she graduated from high school in 1960, she was already married. As one of fourteen siblings, Helen devoted most of her time to caring for the family. “I have spent my whole life taking care of my siblings and my husband and raising my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren.” She still serves as the caretaker for her youngest sister.
When Helen was 68 years old, she retired from a job she had taken after her husband’s death. However, a decade after she retired, she grew tired of retiring. “I had nothing to do. I was slowing down and just couldn’t handle it. I love being at home, but it wasn’t enough. I could still be productive! I’m not going to sit there and do nothing for the time I have left. “While she had no complaints for the first eight decades of her life, she now says with confidence,” It’s time for me now! “
After a lifetime of caring for others, entering healthcare felt like a natural fit for Helen. She signed up for the Certified Nurse Aide (CNA) program at SRTC-Bainbridge and nervously began reading the first chapter of her college textbook. “I haven’t been to a classroom in 60 years! I had never been to college in my life. I didn’t know what to expect. “What she found was that her life experience had prepared her to be an excellent student. “I found out that I love to learn! My brain worked better. My memory has improved. Everything is better! This book looked so ominous when I first opened it, but I only took it page after page and I loved what I discovered. I invested four to five hours a day in studying. I just couldn’t get enough! “
Nurse Aide instructor Ronda Kirkpatrick has been teaching at SRTC for nine years but has never had a student like Helen. “I’ve never met a student who wanted this more than Mrs. Helen. The first time I met her I could look at her and say she would, and she did! She never gave up. She made mistakes like any student, but she never let challenges stop her. Ms. Helen is proof that it’s not too late for anyone to start college. “
For her part, Helen appreciated the challenging and rewarding teaching experience. “Ronda was phenomenal as a teacher. It was thorough and it was tough, but that was what we needed. She was so conscientious that we took care of patients and ourselves. She went out of her way to make sure we were prepared for this career path. “Helen said that she found working and studying on the computer a serious hurdle, but that didn’t stop her. She used the free tutoring in the Student Success Center of the SRTC and also put this obstacle behind her.
Healthcare is part of Helen’s family DNA. Over 100 years ago, her grandfather was the “country doctor” of his small rural community. His descendants include a number of medical assistants, nurses, doctors, hospice workers, and specialists. Helen has joined her family’s health care calling as a home nurse who enables her patients to feel comfortable, calm and safe in their own familiar surroundings. Helen has seen and experienced much of what her patients and families experience in her entire life. She feels that her experience and deserved empathy enable her to offer companionship and care to her patients and families. She says the need for home health care continues to grow. “I see a huge need out there. So many injured people need someone to help them. It’s what I’ve always done alone, and now I have training and education to be even better cared for. “
To complete a successful first semester of college, Helen passed the National Nurse Aide Assessment Program exam on her first attempt. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing designed the rigorous exam to measure competency in relation to knowledge and skills of nurses. After receiving her certification, Helen is now enrolled in the Georgia Nurse Aide Registry and can perform basic patient care responsibilities under the supervision of a licensed nurse. Instructor Ronda Kirkpatrick noted that passing the NNAAP exam itself was a great achievement. “Ms. Helen was successful on the course, but the big thing for me is that she passed this exam, which for most students is known to be very challenging and stressful.”
Georgia residents age 62 or older are eligible for a tuition waiver at SRTC and all other Georgia public colleges and universities. Under this policy, the college grants admission based on the space available. Helen was able to take advantage of this senior citizen benefit and only had to pay for the cost of her book and materials. In the fall, she will continue to take advantage of the fact that Helen has not yet finished college. “I was really inspired by the CNA class, so I’ll go ahead and take hands-on nursing classes next!”
As Helen Yates King prepares to enter her ninth decade, she hopes to inspire other seniors to consider returning to college and maybe even starting a new career like she does. “There are a lot of older people who could get out there and have a whole new career! It is easy to get lonely as a single woman, but it definitely bothers me and makes me so happy. This has been such an enjoyable new chapter in my life! “