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 Media contact:  
 Phillip Rollfing  

"ENDS matriarch"

Grandmother heads back to college to
become oldest student at Texas A&M



Not content with doing volunteer work, Shirley Ankenmann is getting her architecture degree at Texas A&M University — and at 72, she’s the oldest student on campus and proud of it. The senior Aggie also is a proud grandmother — all the more so because her grandson, Michael Wilson, is a fellow architecture student.

“I had a successful career in drafting,” Shirley says, “and it took me all over the United States, including 20 years in Alaska. In 1996, I came to College Station to help my son and his wife by caring for their children while they started a new business, but I soon found that helping out took only about half my time.

“I decided to go back to school in 2000 and chose to enroll in the College of Architecture to study design, a field I’d always been interested in.”

Shirley says she’s often been told that her presence as a non-traditional student helps push her younger classmates to achieve more.

Architecture students are notorious for working all night to complete projects, so when Shirley works in a team, the first thing she tells the other members is “I don’t do all-nighters!”

“The team usually arranges its project so that I can prepare my contribution ahead of time, while the rest of the team fits in its work around typical undergraduate schedules,” she adds.

The other students also appreciate the extensive research she carries out — and shares — for each project, she says.

Some of the projects Shirley and her teams have worked on include the Presbyterian Hospital and Medical Center, the Cambodia Landmine Museum and the East Austin Green Corridor Development, to name just a few.

Shirley’s professors have high praise for her, noting her dedication, respect for deadlines and overall cheerful demeanor.

"Ms. Ankemann has a wonderful upbeat disposition and a positive attitude,” says George Mann, holder of the Ron Skaggs and Joseph Sprague Endowed Chair in Health Facilities Design, who has taught Shirley. “She is an inspiration and a great role model to all. She never approached any situation in my studio with anything but a professional manner. She never asked for any different treatment on any occasion. She was most helpful and cooperative"

And Professor Richard Davison isn’t sure he wants Shirley to graduate.

“Shirley is the matriarch of the Environmental Design program. We’re working on getting her tenured,” Davison quips. “She is always a joy to see in the building. She and I have had many conversations about everything from class topics to suggested curriculum changes to raising children (I have 3). I will have mixed emotions about her finishing her studies here because Shirley is so much a part of the ambience of the place but I am sure she has plans for ‘life after school’.”

Her enrollment as an Aggie marked Shirley’s return to the university where her career began.

“My first job, in 1956, was creating maps for the Oceanography and Meteorology Department, then located in the Old Science Hall,” says Shirley. “My husband had come to Texas A&M to get his master’s degree, and I needed to supplement our income. Professors in this department agreed to hire me after I completed a course in drafting. That’s what I did, and that’s what they did. I made a career of producing drawings for engineering and architecture firms, including such companies as Dow Chemical, National Instruments and Raytheon’s Marine Division.”

Shirley’s work led her to Alaska in the 1960s. There she worked on the North Slope for BP Oil Company and eventually headed up the graphic arts department at the University of Alaska.

“When I moved there, the state was much less developed than it is now,” Shirley notes. “The first place I lived was an old mining camp without running water or electricity. When I went into the field, working as a surveyor, I had to wear bells on my boots to ward off bears. It worked on the little black bears, but fortunately I never had to test whether grizzlies would scatter or come running for their dinner.”

Michael says his grandmother’s work at Texas A&M impressed him so much that he decided to follow in her footsteps. He enrolled in the same department last year and is now a sophomore in environmental design. What’s it like going to school with grandma?

“Most kids would be embarrassed to be going to the same college as their grandparent,” says Michael, “but I love it! What other college student has a grandmother bring a sack lunch for them?

“When I was younger, even before I knew I’d be going to architecture school, I loved to watch her work on models for class — sometimes, I even got to help with them. And although I don’t have any classes with my grandmother, she has influenced not only my choice of major but my design style as well.”

Shirley is set to graduate in December of 2007. She had planned to receive her degree sooner but belatedly discovered that the catalog under which she entered required four courses in kinesiology and a foreign language.

“I’m taking archery,” explains Shirley. “I wanted an activity in which I could take all four of my phys ed courses, so I’m learning to shoot arrows. My arm is black and blue from the effort, but I’m really having a lot of fun. And I’m learning American Sign Language to finish out my other requirement.

“Studying and attending classes keeps my mind busy, and staying in touch with the students keeps me young — I don’t have time to play bingo.”

What does Shirley’s future hold? She plans to continue her studies, enrolling in the architecture department’s masters program. And, once she has her master’s degree, Shirley can always work on her pilot’s license. After all, she’s already completed ground school.

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Shirly Ankenmann, the oldest student on campus, with her grandson Michael Wilson, a fellow architecture student