Interview by Crystal Zhu
Penelope (Molander) Ellis was a University Honors student in the 1960s, and now she’s back at the UW as an Access student. In this anniversary issue, we wanted to reconnect with an alum who could talk about the early days of the Honors Program and how the honors and undergraduate classes compare to those today. Penelope’s educational path has been interdisciplinary and interesting. She received her B.A. in Swedish in 1968, an M.A. in Scandinavian languages and literature in 1969, began a Ph.D. in comparative literature, and completed a B.S. in civil engineering in 1980. In autumn of 2011 Penelope returned to UW as a student in the Access program, which allows Washington state citizens over the age of 60 to audit up to two UW classes per quarter for five dollars per credit.
Penelope has thoroughly enjoyed her past two quarters as an Access student and plans to continue taking classes. The Access program is an opportunity to have the learning experience of a UW student without the pressure of grades, papers, or exams. So far, Penelope has taken classes in philosophy, comparative religion, and English. Next, she hopes to take courses in classics and learn more about the brain. Penelope’s quest for intellectual engagement and lifelong learning are exactly what Honors is all about.
Crystal Zhu: What did you study at UW as an undergrad?
Penelope Ellis: I have a checkered background because I have many degrees from this university.
My first degree was in Swedish, and I had a junior year abroad in Sweden. In fact, I did two years of college in my first year to be a junior within five quarters. I was taking 20 hours a quarter so I could go to Sweden quicker. Then I went back and got a secondary teaching degree in English. But when I came out it was at the very worst time because we were in a recession, and I am at the very front of a baby boom, so there were lots and lots of applicants. After that I worked for a while, then came back to start a Ph.D. in comparative literature in English and Scandinavian. I did that for several years, then I got really nervous because, again, of the economy. One morning, I woke up and thought, “I’ve got to take care of myself for the rest of my life, and this isn’t good.” I had been teaching Swedish at Swedish Club, and one of my students was the dean of engineering here at UW. So I showed up at his office at 8:00 in the morning and said, “Tell me about engineering.” So I took a leave of absence from the Ph.D. in comparative literature and went back and got a bachelor’s in civil engineering. I took calculus and chemistry and just loved them.
CZ: Describe your experience in the Honors program academically and socially. Was there a sense of community? Now there are Honors floors in the dormitories.
PE: I don’t think there was anything like there is now—now it’s just fabulous. I just remember that the Honors Program meant more work.
I don’t remember anything like [a community]. I don’t remember anyone from my program. The only Honors course I vividly remember was an anthropology course. It was a huge lecture, and the honors quiz section was taught by the professor, but he wasn’t very good to begin with. I had to write an extra paper more than anyone else did, and I was sort of irked. At that point I was trying to do 20 credits a quarter, so I didn’t want any more work.
We didn’t have anything like [an Honors floor in the residence halls, but we formed] Swedish house in Lander Hall. There were maybe four women and six men. They would put up a little partition in the dining room so when we passed that point we were only supposed to speak Swedish.
CZ: What career pathway did you pursue after graduating from UW?
PE: I got a bachelor of science in civil engineering and I used to design sewers for a while. I did that until we adopted some children from Korea—my two children. And then it just seemed right to stay home with them because they were adopted and were a different race.
Engineering [as a career] was pretty good, especially when I came out just at the beginning of more women going into that field, of realizing we should have special things for minority-owned and women-owned firms. And companies, especially in technology, were trying to hire women. I had no trouble getting a job. In fact, I never applied for any engineering job after that. I would just get people calling up and asking, which felt so good after all those years of trying to get a job with my humanities degree.
CZ: How did you learn about the Access program?
PE: I stayed home with the kids, and always wanted to come back to UW, heard about the Access program and I was just boggled, “You’re kidding me, where do I sign up?” I showed up at Schmitz Hall when I was 55 and they said I had to be 60, so I had to wait five more years! I thought, “This is not fair.” All your life you’re too young; you wait your turn to be 21 and when you’re a little kid you’re waiting to be big enough to do something, and I’m finally 55 and I’m still too young? When I was 60 unfortunately I was ill, so I just really haven’t been able to do it until this past year. So I went back and I just can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. It is absolutely so invigorating. I feel twenty years younger at least. It feels so good to be using my mind that way. Obviously you always use your mind, but it’s different when you’re in an academic setting.
What classes have you taken through the Access program? How did you select them?
The first quarter (autumn 2011) I took a philosophy of religion course from Ken Clatterbaugh. He’s just a superb philosopher. As an Access student you’re supposed to be quiet so I hadn’t said a word the entire quarter, I just sat in the front row panting with excitement. When I went to talk to him at the end of the course he said he was teaching an Honors philosophy course next quarter and that I could sit in on it. So I made a gift to the Honors program for letting me sit in. I also took “Rise of the Novel” course from English professor Tom Lockwood, who’s just a great professor. I had him many, many years ago for a similar course, so it was revisiting material. And then not to be too greedy, but I took another course, and that was in comparative literature, “Freud and the Literary Tradition” from Richard Gray, which was again excellent. The English novel class was about 25 people. The professor decided on some days we would have discussion groups, and I assumed he would just let me sit in the corner twiddling my thumbs, but instead I got to be part of a discussion group. I think it’s a reasonable rule [that Access students are not allowed vocal participation.] The undergraduates are paying full price to go there; [their] voices should be heard. We had our chance when we were young, so we can just sit back and listen. And I don’t think they want more work for the professors, which is totally reasonable. So last quarter, I did nothing but read. I just sat there thinking, “Oh my goodness, I’m so glad I don’t have to write papers and study for exams!”
CZ: What are your plans for spring quarter?
PE: So far I’m taking another course from Ken Clatterbaugh because he’s retiring, and I want to take as much from him as possible before he goes away. So I’m taking a course in something I have no interest in at all: Marxism. Well, it’s pretty important in the history of the 20th century for sure. If you have a good teacher it doesn’t matter what the subject is. I don’t know yet what else [I’m taking]. Some of the courses I want to take are already full, or the time is wrong. It’ll either be an English course or maybe an art history course. I’d like to do that.
CZ: How have you liked the experience?
PE: I’m hoping to do [the Access program] until I drop, because it’s so much fun. I have other interests in my life, obviously; I have groups and friends and all that kind of thing, but this—I’ve always loved learning and I’ve always loved school. So this is just such a gift, I’m really grateful for it. I take it extremely seriously. My kids laugh at me, my husband too, in a way. I’ll say, “Oh my god! I have an assignment due tomorrow!” And he says, “You know you really don’t have to do it. You’re not being tested on it.” But I take it very seriously…I’m furious if I miss a lecture.
CZ: Would you recommend the Access program to others?
PE: I try to tell my friends [about Access], and they’re all jealous that I’m getting to do this. It is scary to do it. I was scared to go in at the very first class, because it’s a little daunting [but] people are really quite sweet.
CZ: How does your experience as an Access student compare to your experience as an undergraduate?
PE: Obviously I’m not young anymore, and I thought all the kids would be looking and saying, “Who’s that old lady?” and that kind of stuff, but I’ve just discovered the kids are just wonderful, and I’m really impressed. I was all ready to go into the old lady rant about “these kids today” but I just think they’re marvelous. They’re polite, they’re bright, and I’m really impressed by the caliber of the discussion. They hold doors for me—maybe they do it because they think I’m too frail and can’t open it myself.
I’ve always loved to learn, so that is a given. However, as you know, when you have a lot of stress and pressure, it takes some of the joy of learning out, because you have to do it. And so you’re just cramming stuff into your brain and thinking, “Oh, I’ll think about this later” but later never comes and then you’re just cramming and going from this course to the next. So I think now, it’s just so much more fun! I think in some ways I’m a better student too. I was always the kind of student where if I didn’t know something when I’m reading along, then I would have to look it up. Of course, there were no computers in those days, so that meant coming to the library. And I would spend just hours in Suzzallo going from one reference to the next. So I think I was always that kind of a learner and that I really wanted to learn it. But now it’s just the joy of learning, just pure and simple, and that is so much fun.
Crystal Zhu is an Honors student studying international studies, Spanish, and Chinese. She plans to graduate in 2013 and hopes to then find a job and later go to graduate school.