THE PERSISTANT SCHOLAR
It took 65 years, but Eldene Hanchey Niel is an official college graduate
By Naomi Guidry
Graduating from college was something Eldene Hanchey Niel had always wanted to accomplish.
“From the time I was very little, I always wanted to get a college degree,” she said.
At the age of 84, Niel walked across the stage Dec. 8 at Burton Coliseum to receive a bachelor’s degree in general studies from McNeese State University — a day that was 65 years in the making. She graduated with a 3.37 grade-point average.
After graduating as valedictorian from Merryville High School, Niel first attended McNeese in the fall of 1953. She was a home economics major, with a goal of one day becoming a dietician.
Niel remained at McNeese for three semesters before having to leave for personal reasons. After those semesters, Niel found a job at Shell Oil Company, where she worked as a stenographer, radio operator and teletype operator for four years.
“I took night classes while working at Shell,” Niel said. “I took night classes in speech, advanced typing, advanced shorthand, accounting and advanced English grammar. The speech course was taken because I was the radio operator at the Shell Oil Company; the course improved my diction and helped me in this position. The advanced courses in typing and shorthand allowed me to advance to higher-paying positions.”
During that time, she changed her major to liberal arts because she said she wanted a well-rounded education. She and husband John started their family during this time.
In the fall of 1972, when her son was in the first grade, Niel returned to college, taking one course at a time, according to an autobiography she published in 2014. Her first class was French 101, followed by French 102 in the spring of 1973. Mathematics 105 and 106 followed in the next two semesters, fall 1973 and spring 1974.
It was then Niel said she realized she was needed in her husband’s dental office, where she began working as office manager.
In 1983, she was able to return to pursuing her college education.
“In the fall of 1983, I took Business 123, business calculations,” she said. “In the spring 1984, I took Computer Science 102, basic computer. In spring 1985, I took Art 351, art appreciation. In the summer 1985, I took Voice 131. In the fall of 1985, I took Music 315, music appreciation.”
Following her husband’s retirement from dentistry in the early 1990s, he began taking a French course through the EASE (Emphasis on Adult Special Entry) program at McNeese. The progam allows adults 60 and older to take one course per semester, Niel explained. John began his course in the fall of 1995. His wife followed suit in the spring of 1996.
The couple had a specific interest in learning French. Niel and her husband even traveled to France to study the French language.
“We went to France through a program through Northeastern University of Monroe,” she said. “We stayed in three different homes. It was considered a semester. I earned three hours of credit. That was a very good experience.”
Niel said she took her last class in French in the fall of 2001.
“One year after (my husband) died, I went (to McNeese) again,” she said. “But I had to drop out after that. About three years ago, I decided ‘OK, I’m gonna get this degree.’ “
But a degree in French was not an option at McNeese. She then switched her major to general studies.
Niel returned to McNeese in January 2015, starting with a Sociology 201 course. Since then, she missed only one semester due to illness.
“One year, in the spring of 2017, I got the flu and I had to drop out,” she said. “My professor had just had brain surgery. I didn’t want to give her the flu, so it was better for me to drop out.”
Her most recent course was an online course. “That helped me a lot,” she said, adding that street flooding due to heavy rains could sometimes make it difficult to make it to class. “I enjoyed the online course because of the bad weather.”
By the end of the fall semester, Niel had earned her spot in the fall 2018 graduating class.
“It seemed almost like it was unreal,” she said. “I thought ‘I can’t believe this is finally happening.’ “
Her family was proud to attend her college graduation.
“They all came to the graduation,” she said. “We had a really nice celebration.”
What will she do now that she’s a college graduate?
“I might do substitute teaching in French immersion schools,” she said. “My short-term goal is to get prepared to really master the French language.”
She also plans to continue taking courses at McNeese. Niel plans to review French 201 and 202 courses during the next two semesters, even though she’s already received credit for them.
“At that point, if I want to, I can substitute as a French teacher,” she said. “Every semester, I plan to go back, as long as my health is good.
“I would really like to take Latin and Greek. I like foreign languages. And possibly piano class.”
Niel wants others her age to know about the EASE program.
“I try to tell everybody I know about the EASE program,” she said. “It’s a marvelous offer that they give us.”
For more information about the EASE program, visit mcneese.edu/admissions/ease_emphasis_on_adult_special_entry or call 337-475-5615.
At the age of 84, Eldene Hanchey Niel received her bachelor’s degree in general studies Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018 from McNeese State University.
Eldene Niel as a student in 1954
Eldene Hanchey Niel, 84, of Lake Charles, was one of 580 students who graduated from McNeese State University this month. She first began taking courses at McNeese 65 years ago.
From left to right Tom Niel, Eldene Hanchey Niel, Angela Niel, Louis Niel.