Why Betty Sandison Went Back to School

In mid-May, Betty Sandison graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in multidisciplinary studies. As she walked across the stage on the momentous occasion, there was one thing on her mind: Don’t fall.

“When you’re older, that’s the way it is,” she says. But she also remembers the tears of joy. “It all goes by so quickly, but I was thinking, I did it.” 

In her 84 years, Sandison has seen a lot of change. She grew up on a farm in a small town in Renville, about 100 miles from the Twin Cities. For school she had to “go to town” to her country school, which had 11 students in all 12 grades. Three of which were her cousins, and in her small town almost everyone was kind of family. 

When she graduated in 1955, Sandison had made up her mind to go to college. As the first in her family to go, she didn’t get any support. But she worked hard and saved the pennies she earned from working summers at Randy’s Cafe. The $600 she had collected was enough to afford the one-year nursing program at the University of Minnesota. 

As a licensed practical nurse, she started work at the university hospital. But being an accomplished nurse wasn’t enough. In 1957 she enrolled in an Elementary Education program at the U of M, and like many college stories go, she met a young chemical engineering student in gatherings between Comstock and Centennial Halls. She found her husband.

They started a family together, and while her husband finished his degree. “Mine, of course, went on hold,” Sandison said. His 3M job took their growing family across the Midwest to Chicago and Detroit until their marriage dissolved—they got divorced in 1979. Sandison didn’t let that stop her. She decided she needed a way to support herself and her daughters, so she went to Lakewood State Junior College (current-day Century College) to get her RN degree. She continued on to have a fulfilling career at St. Joseph’s Hospital for over 30 years. 

Sandison had lived an entire life before returning to the classroom. In those 60 years, she raised her daughters, visited almost the entire continental United States, and even went to almost all of the Major League Baseball stadiums. That sounds like a complete bucket list, but there was one thing Sandison had yet to cross off her list. With the encouragement of her friends she decided to finally finish her degree at the U of M. After 62 years, in 2018 she enrolled at CCAPS and this time around she had a great circle of friends and a support system. 

Her advisors, Karolyn Redoute and Karen Moon—whom she credits a lot of her success—helped her line up her past nursing, business, and history credits (on paper, all of which she kept) to apply to a multidisciplinary studies program.

In 1955, the U of M campus (and the state of the world) was light years different to how they are now. Eisenhower was president, there was no West Bank, and the Washington Avenue Bridge didn’t even exist. Before Weisman sat in its corner on the Mississippi, the space was a parking lot. But it was perfect for Sandison.

“I just loved it. From the beginning I thought ‘I’m never going back to Renville,’ and I never did,” she says. It wasn’t anything against the town she grew up in, she just thrived in the anonymity of the city. In a small town, everyone is connected somehow, people always knew what was happening.  “You know what I really liked? Nobody knew what I was doing.”

More than that, everyone was unplugged. Sandison’s largest challenge coming back was diving into the digital world. Struggling to get a grasp on technology, she recalled a moment in one of her classes when a classmate stepped in to help: “He said to me, ‘Betty, just stop, you must remember, I have never been without a computer,’” she says. 

The pandemic-fueled pivot to online learning hindered her plans. She had to pause her classes and came back in the fall of 2021. Despite its challenges, she loved being on campus, her favorite part being the students. Sandison found today’s students much more open than the one’s she encountered the first time she went to school. “I think people are more willing to share, nothing’s secretive,” she says. “There’s a lot more individuality.”

Back then, she says, women were in a different spot. “People still didn’t think that women needed college. The expectations were for them to get married and become housewives, clean the house, and cook the meals.” She passed the value of education down to her children. “My ex-husband and I agreed, my girls had to go to college for two years—there was no if,” she says. They all completed a degree and her grandkids are also in the process of obtaining theirs. 

Many remarks she grew up with made a lasting impression on her. She couldn’t tell anyone that she was going on the baseball tour because in the early ’60s, sports were a “men’s thing.” “Someone told me, ‘Women shouldn’t be watching baseball,’” she says. 

She retells the story of how one of her roommates and fellow nursing school classmates eloped and got married to her beau—but they couldn’t tell anyone for fear of her being kicked out of the program. Women couldn’t get married while they were in the program. At that time, most nursing schools wouldn’t accept married women, and immediately ended the training of nurses who married or became pregnant.

“My mom couldn’t vote. If you think about it, that wasn’t too long ago.” She recognizes that things have changed so much, but they still have a long way to go.

Since she went back, she’s had people ask her why she would even do that if she’s not going to use the degree. Her response? “’Cause I want to.”

It all started with a dream. “I just felt I wanted that degree,” Sandison says. “My big thing is, I want other people to do something and not sit in front of a TV or on a rocking chair. You have to have a goal or a purpose. I see too many people that get stuck and don’t do anything else.” She emphasizes the importance of having a goal to work towards, and maybe, turn off your cell phone every once in a while.

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