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DeKalb, Ill. — Because of NIU President Lisa Freeman’s inspiration, 68-year-old Jay Cook can soon call himself a college graduate.
Cook earned his bachelor’s degree in general studies this December, nearly 50 years after he first attended NIU. The Chicago man didn’t quite finish college the first time around. He got married his sophomore year, started a family and eventually embarked on a successful career running businesses in a variety of industries, including government, communications and healthcare.
“School became much less of a priority than putting food on the table,” he remembered.
Still, he never quite gave up on the idea of one day finishing college. A visit to NIU after his retirement convinced him to take the leap.
He’d gone to a panel event on campus to support a friend and ended up at dinner gathering with President Freeman afterwards. By that point, he’d already touched base with NIU’s Undergraduate Admissions as he pondered returning to NIU. Listening to Freeman talk about the university convinced him to pursue a degree.
“I was totally enthralled by her passion for NIU and her passion for education and her devotion and dedication to the university,” Cook said. “Since I had already started on this journey that certainly helped me continue. I thought, ‘You know, I’m going to do this.’”
Working with Judy Santacaterina, director of the Bachelor of General Studies Program, Cook enrolled in online courses this past January and graduated this month with a 3.7 GPA.
“It was a challenge for me,” he said. “I’m 68 years old. School has obviously changed in the past 50 years. I just wanted to know, ‘Could I do it?’ And if I was going to do it, I wanted to do the best I possibly could.
“I’m very proud of what I did here.”
Retiring in 2017 as a senior executive in the healthcare industry, Cook remains involved in Chicago area theater as an actor, singer and performer.
“I’m having a ball,” he said.
He debated even telling his friends and family about his pursuit of a degree because he wasn’t sure how they’d react or how challenging the effort would turn out to be. But, he said, going public with his endeavor was the best choice he ever made.
“The two places where I’m getting the most pride are from my 93-year-old mother, who is absolutely thrilled, and my grandchildren,” said the father of three grown children and eight grandchildren.
This pride spilled out into a recent letter to President Freeman.
“Thank you for being an inspiration,” he wrote.
President Freeman was honored to receive the letter.
“It was wonderful to meet Jay and then receive his letter,” she said. “I often say that NIU offers transformative opportunities to students with different lived experiences. This is an amazing example and Jay’s Huskie experience is inspiring!”
Media Contact: Jami Kunzer
Northern Illinois University is a student-centered, nationally recognized public research university, with expertise that benefits its region and spans the globe in a wide variety of fields, including the sciences, humanities, arts, business, engineering, education, health and law. Through its main campus in DeKalb, Illinois, and education centers for students and working professionals in Chicago, Hoffman Estates, Naperville, Oregon and Rockford, NIU offers more than 100 areas of study while serving a diverse and international student body.