CARTHAGE — This will be a busy week for Leslie Nivens.
She turned 84 Tuesday. And on Friday, the retired registered nurse will graduate from Cox College in Springfield with a bachelor of science degree in nursing, capping decades of scattered academic work and a 50-year career in the field.
She is both excited and proud of that accomplishment, she said Tuesday at her Carthage home.
"I'm a little bit of all of it, of course," she said.
Nivens, who said she had never envisioned herself as a nurse when she was young, enrolled in nursing training somewhat by accident. In 1951, during a fight with her fiance about whether to go through with the wedding, he asked her what she would do if they did not marry, she recalled. She told him she would get training in nursing, figuring that he would try to talk her out of it. To her surprise, he didn't.
"So I shifted the old Model A into gear and drove off," Nivens said. "I drove into Springfield two days later and asked about a class."
Nivens enrolled in the Burge School of Nursing and graduated three years later. She worked for decades at what is now the Missouri Rehabilitation Center in Mount Vernon, spending most of her nursing career with state-run organizations.
Nivens, who calls herself a lifelong learner, got bitten by the education bug in the 1970s after attending training courses through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She realized that much had changed since she had entered the nursing field.
She told her supervisor she wanted more education, and over the following three decades she took classes as time allowed.
"I just picked up a couple here and a couple there," she said.
Nivens returned to school last year after touring Cox College, where she met with President Anne Brett and mentioned that she would like to finally complete her bachelor's degree.
"I offered her an honorary degree, and she said 'no,' she definitely wanted to earn it," Brett said by telephone Tuesday.
Brett looked at Nivens' transcript, compared it with Cox's curriculum and determined that she needed only a handful of courses to complete the degree. She set up the courses online, adapting their content to fit Nivens' needs and interests as a student who was retired from nursing and would likely not return to the field.
"To do the same curriculum as a new graduate who is going into practice just didn't seem to be a good fit," Brett said. "I taught the courses that she had to take, and I customized the curriculum to meet the objectives and make it something that was meaningful to her."
Brett said Nivens was eager to learn, acing her courses and giving her all for each paper she wrote or issue she researched.
"She definitely didn't get off easy," Brett said. "She worked hard and excelled at every single course. She went above and beyond for absolutely every assignment."
Nivens said she would encourage her fellow graduates to pursue learning throughout their lives, as she has tried to do.
"We have come to a point, and that's all in the world we have here today," she said. "We are not finished with our education. I hope they will plan on continuing to improve their minds and learn things."