Holly Vigesaa's first day of nursing school was a pretty typical first day experience. She didn't know anyone and she was not quite sure what to expect. The coursework seemed challenging and slightly intimidating.

But there was one thing that made her experience different and caused her to stand out, she said. Her gray hair.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

"At the beginning, when I came back to school, before I was in the (nursing) program, people looked at me like, 'You have gray hair and you're in school?'" said Vigesaa, who will graduate Saturday from the University of Jamestown with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree at age 58.

"I knew people were looking at me funny," she said. "They were just sort of curious."

Vigesaa may be the oldest nursing student to ever graduate from the University of Jamestown, said Kim Ash, chair of the nursing department at the University of Jamestown.

"I talked to several faculty that work here - one of them a very long-standing faculty member - and the best that we can recall by looking back through some class lists, Holly is the oldest," Ash said. "That's going back about 40 or 45 years. I would be surprised if there's anyone older than Holly."

An older student

For most of her adult life, Vigesaa, from Cooperstown, was busy raising a family. Going back to school was not a priority.

"I raised kids primarily, and I would have little jobs here and there," Vigesaa said. "I've done so many different things. I've done everything from making bullets to roofing with my husband."

When she was in her 50s, and her children were grown, Vigesaa began to think about going back to school to pursue her "passion" for health and caring for others. But she worried about taking on student loan debt at her age and was not sure if it would be the right move.

A conversation with her daughter, Ashley Vigesaa, a registered nurse who graduated from the University of Jamestown in 2006, was the deciding factor.

"She said, 'In three years, if you don't do it, you're going to say I could have done it but I didn't. You'll be mad at yourself. So do it. What else are you doing, mom?'" Vigesaa said.

This Saturday, Ashley will ceremoniously "pin" nursing pins on her mother's graduation stole.

"I think it's going to be really special," Ashley said. "She pinned me at my graduation. It's a full circle moment, 13 years later."

"I'll probably cry, because she is my inspiration," Holly said. "When I decided to do this, she was a part of that."

The decision to go back to school in her 50s is not one Vigesaa regrets. Despite some funny looks on her first day of school, Vigesaa ended up becoming very close with her fellow nursing students, many of whom are in their early 20s.

"They are really good about accepting me," Vigesaa said. "It's fun being in that cohort situation, where you just have this small class and you have buddies.

"It's different for someone my age to have that, and that's what I'm going to miss."

Vigesaa's life experience and maturity brought a unique perspective to the classroom, and some of her young classmates turned to her with questions about medical circumstances they had never experienced.

"They'll ask me questions about childbirth or menopause or things like that," she said.

"My mom is truly one of the most outgoing, bubbly people I've ever met," Ashley said. "She can make a friend wherever she goes. I think that's going to be one of her biggest assets as she goes out into the world to become a nurse.

"She's going to be a great nurse."

Pushing forward

After graduation, Vigesaa will return to Cooperstown, where her husband farms, and begin work as a nurse at the Cooperstown Medical Center.

"My husband is definitely looking forward to it being over," she said. "He's been alone for three years, with cows."

In the future, Vigesaa would like to get certified in wound care and maybe do some travel nursing. She has no plans to retire at age 65.

"I can't imagine going through this and only using it for six years," she said. "As long as I have strong legs and a strong back, I will continue working. I feel like I have lots of years yet."

That drive, she said, may be something she inherited from her father.

"My dad was really, really driven and I think I have a little bit of that in me," Vigesaa said. "He was Air Force for 26 years. He retired a general, then he went to law school in his 50s. He died in 2003 of pancreatitis when he was state's attorney.

"It's probably just in my blood to keep pushing."

Vigesaa hopes her decision to go back to school in her 50s will set an example for her own children to keep pushing forward.

"The best example I could set for them is to be interested in things and go further, learn more," Vigesaa said. "There's always room for more."

Sitting in the student center on campus this week, surrounded by 20-somethings, Vigesaa's eyes began to well up as she considered what it will be like to walk across the stage to collect her diploma with her children and grandchildren there to watch.

"You know, there are millions and millions of nurses, but it feels like an extreme accomplishment," she said. "I can't believe this day is here."

When asked what advice she would give to older people considering going back to school, Vigesaa laughed and said, "I'd say, 'What else are you doing?'"