Some students may talk about how the University has changed in the past 60 years, but Robert Becker has actually lived it.
Becker, a member of the class of 2013, matriculated at Duke in 1950 and intended to graduate in 1954. However, a semester before graduation, he decided to drop out. Becker said that at the time he left Duke, he was exhausted from the routine of schoolwork and was inspired by an internship at American Airlines the previous summer to pursue a career in aviation. Becker then served 12 years of active duty in the U.S. Army Reserve and the Navy before returning to his civilian career.
Eventually, as time went on, Becker decided that he wanted to return to Duke and complete his degree.
“I’m 80 years old and it’s crazy to go back to school, I’m not going to do anything [with my degree] except hang it on the wall,” Becker said. “But everybody has a bucket list and that was about the last thing in my bucket list before I pass on. This is the time to do it.”
Becker said he wrote President Richard Brodhead a letter in May 2012 explaining his situation. Once the letter was passed to Sabrina Thomas, associate dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, administrators contacted Becker, offering him the opportunity to graduate. The faculty used the requirements for graduation from the 1950s to determine the classes he still needed to take. He needed two credits to graduate with a degree in political science.
Becker is now enrolled in Religion 101: “Introduction to Religious Studies” with religion professor Wesley Kort and Philosophy 150: “Logic” taught by Stephen Martin, a graduate student in philosophy.
Although he initially expected students in his classes to question his age, Becker noted that few students have tried to engage in conversation with him. He attributed this to an overall lack of communication he has noticed since his departure from Duke.
Instead of engaging in conversations with their peers, students tend to spend more time with their phones and computers, Becker said.
“Do [students] ask me questions? One or two did,” Becker said. “For the most part, they’re very reserved. The camaraderie isn’t there.”
Nevertheless, freshman Abdul Latif, a classmate in Kort’s religion course, said he noticed Becker one day in class and had to ask him why he was there.
“I asked him if he was sitting in on [the class] for a little while, then he told me his story, and I [thought], ‘This is incredible,’” Latif said. “It was the day after the whole Kappa Sigma ordeal in the paper, and I thought this was something really positive.”
Latif noted that Becker’s story revived his own love of learning and reasons why he attends Duke.
“It kind of reminds you that you’re here not because of the grades, but you’re here to learn,” Latif said. “I’m not [just] here to get a degree or to get a job.”
This resonates most for Becker, who is not here to get the best grades or the highest-paying career but simply to educate himself.
His wife, Patricia Becker, noted that his decision to return to the University reflects his ability to overcome barriers.
“Nothing is an obstacle to him, he’s always been that way throughout life and he’s always achieved everything he’s gone after,” she added.
Robert Becker noted how grateful he is for the opportunity to come back to Duke and cross this goal off his bucket list.
“You would think that one person coming back after 59 years at a university with 15,000 students a year, you’re just a number. I found I wasn’t just a number,” he said. “They welcomed me back, they were sincerely interested in me and my graduation, and I feel really special.”
Becker said that despite his age, he feels perfectly capable of handling the coursework and activity required of him.
“Age to me is just a state of mind. People say at your age, you should be looking for the rocking chair and the front porch. Well, I don’t have a front porch or a rocking chair,” Becker said.
Correction: The caption of the original composite image published with this story stated that an older photo was of Robert Becker, when it was in fact of another individual. The photo has been corrected. The Chronicle regrets the error.