Vonda Bradbury of East Orlando believes in learning every chance you get. “You don’t stop learning,” she says. “You should be learning all your life.”
As president of the Learning Institute for Elders (LIFE) at the University of Central Florida (UCF), Bradbury has the opportunity to continue learning and to help others do the same. The nonprofit community organization is focused on providing educational programs for those of retirement age.
However, Bradbury’s love affair with the world of education started decades ago when she lived in North Dakota and decided to go back to college as an adult.
It’s no secret that women were restricted on professional opportunities in the ‘70s, especially in Bradbury’s small hometown of Williston, North Dakota. There, the simple daily lifestyle revolved around family and church.
“Back then you could either be a nurse, a teacher or a secretary,” Bradbury says. There were few, if any, other opportunities for women, especially those who didn’t go to college.
She remembers the hefty expenses of a college education and how she wasn’t able to attend right after high school like other people her age. She also remembers feeling a deep motivation to attend college for years following her high school graduation. Instead, she worked full time and eventually got married and had children.
“There could be more,” she thought after reading an inspirational book that prompted her to work toward furthering her education. Written by Betty Friedan and published in 1963, “The Feminine Mystique” is largely known for the beginnings of the second-wave feminism in the United States. First-wave feminism focused on voting rights, whereas second-wave feminism spread to a wider range of topics, including the workplace.
The book opened her mind to all the options available for women just like her. There is more, she knew, and she wished to pursue it.
Earning a Formal Education
At 32 years old, Bradbury knew she wanted to expand her opportunities by earning a college education, but she was committed to being a wife and a mother to two children. Before she could go back to school, she encouraged her husband to attend and earn his degree.
“Our little family of four moved from Williston to Grand Forks, home to the University of North Dakota,” she says. “My husband finished his degree first.”
She went on to explain that it was more important for a man to have a higher-education degree than a woman at the time. After he graduated, it was finally her turn to hit the books full time in 1972. But being a full-time student as an adult while raising a 3-year-old and 7-year-old with her husband was not an easy task.
“The chance to soak up knowledge, be exposed to new ideas, to broaden my horizons,” are opportunities that Bradbury says college gave her. “My world expanded.”
Being a voracious reader, Bradbury enjoyed to “travel far and wide within the pages of a book” so she naturally loved all of her English courses. Although most of her classmates were younger than she was, Bradbury felt a sense of gratification being a college student as an adult. Since she was older and wiser, she knew she really wanted it and she was able to appreciate the educational opportunity more because of it. “I soaked it up like a sponge,” she says, full of excitement and nostalgia.
After finally earning her bachelor’s degree in English, with a teaching certificate, Bradbury didn’t stop. The University of North Dakota (UND) offered her an assistantship, which allowed her to continue attending the university to work on her next degree.
After graduating with a master’s degree, Bradbury had unlocked the door to professional opportunities. She successfully landed a job as an assistant to the dean of the UND medical school, something she wouldn’t have been able to accomplish without a formal education.
“First of all, I would never have gotten the job without it,” Bradbury says. “Going to college built my confidence and showed I could accomplish difficult things if I worked hard enough and wanted it bad enough. It also broadened my perspectives and helped me grow professionally and personally.”
Leading Other Adults to Learning
Now, Bradbury volunteers her time as president of LIFE, where she is currently planning the organization’s 25th anniversary celebration. There are about 600 enrollments for the weekly class, which is composed of two lectures.
From 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., people of retired age gather on the UCF campus to learn. The organization is not focused on having the students earn a degree to re-enter the workforce but rather on promoting the longevity of the educational experience. Instead of having a semester-long class, LIFE arranges multiple lectures on topics ranging from small businesses to astronomy. Short question sessions follow every lecture and these wise students are always curious to know more. With more than 300 eager people on the wait list, LIFE is looking into live streaming the lectures to reach a larger audience.
Bradbury first became involved with LIFE as a member about seven years ago. Shortly after she joined, she volunteered as the newsletter editor, where she was able to sit in on board meetings and learn about the people involved in the organization. As she interviewed members, she realized that everyone has a story – and these people are still so full of adventure and curiosity. “These are people who are living life,” she says.