A profile of Concordia’s oldest student
Mary Xenos-Whiston has been a lot of things in her life: a teacher, a mother, and a guide at an art gallery. But the one thing she has always been is a student. At 92 years old, she is Concordia’s oldest student and is currently enrolled in Dr. Nicola Nixon’s American poetry class.
According to Xenos-Whiston, lately she has been doing the usual: “Going crazy,” to which her daughter Barbara commented, “Being 92 is not for the faint of heart.”
Despite going crazy, she is still enjoying her class on American Poetry . “I wouldn’t be taking them if I wasn’t really enjoying them,” she said.
“My life is too short for doing things that I don’t enjoy, like house cleaning.”
Xenos-Whiston was born to Greek immigrants in Verdun, and she’s lived in Montreal her whole life and has watched the city and University change dramatically. Her father owned a restaurant in Verdun, where she recalls it being the first to get a soft-serve ice cream machine. In her early years, much of her life was based around the church. Her and about 50 other Greek families would gather at Holy Trinity for weddings, funerals and Saturday night dances before the church burned down in the 1980s.
As a girl Xenos-Whiston had a love for learning; she frequently found herself in the top math and science classes while attending Verdun high school and she always had a book with her.
This love for learning has kept Xenos-Whiston in school for most of her life. She’s taken courses for fun at Concordia since the ’90s. After originally enrolling in English courses, it wasn’t long until she discovered other interests. “I discovered the FFAR [interdisciplinary fine arts] courses, wow,” she exclaimed. “I took a course in Jazz, I took a course in this, I took a course in that, I was just interested in learning.”
During this time she earned another bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Concordia and has taken many courses in women’s studies. But her history with Concordia goes back to before the school even went by that name.
Xenos-Whiston began attending Sir George Williams University in 1950, where she received her Bachelor of Arts, majoring in history as one of the few women attending the school. “Girls did not go to university,” Xenos-Whiston said. She recalled a former teacher questioning her about her enrollment on campus one day.
“What are you doing, going to Sir.George? You’re only going to get married and have children,” she recalled the teacher saying. “And I thought that’s what you think.”
She did eventually marry and give birth to her daughter Barbara, but she found time for a great deal of academic success along the way. Xenos-Whiston completed a master’s degree in education at McGill in 1978, and a PhD from the University of Montreal in 1990.
After World War II she saw the city transform spectacularly. “The government allowed educated European immigrants to come here in the late ’40s and early ’50s and Montreal changed.” Xenos-Whinston watched as the city’s identity changed around her: what used to be diners became German, Italian and Chinese restaurants.
“Before you knew it, Montreal was a new place. It was great.”
After finishing her first degree Xenos-Whiston began teaching in elementary school and spent her days going to the theater. In 1991 she retired. After a life served in education, some people may never want to look at a classroom again. But this was not the case for Xenos-Whiston who continued her education at Concordia.
“Look, some people go to movies. Some people play hockey. Some people spend hours training for things and then going and doing them. I love taking courses,” she said.
Today, her family sees school as a part of her.
“I can’t imagine her not being in school,” said her daughter. The only time Whiston could remember her mother not being in school was after she was born, when her mother left teaching for a few years.
“After that, she’s constantly been a student; it’s part of her identity. I just can’t imagine her not doing it. It’s always been a surprise to hear about what courses she is taking and what papers she is writing, what ideas she is interested in and what she is discovering. It’s kind of fun.”
Going to school has not always been easy for Xenos-Whiston, who is now legally blind and uses hearing aids. She has note-takers in class and through the Centre for Equitable Library Assistance (CELA) can get accessible copies of texts used in her class. It’s no easy feat, but she is still determined to be in class.
During the pandemic, her courses at Concordia were what kept her going. When her daughter asked if she could have made it through COVID without Concordia, her reply was simple. “No, I would have died.”
Concordia does offer a senior non-credit program, which allows older people to audit classes. When auditing courses, students don’t have to write papers or exams like they would for credit. But Xenos-Whiston doesn’t have as much interest in this.
“I did try it out,” she said, “But, to me, a course is not a course until I write the paper. So I decided that I wanted to write the papers.”
It’s professors like Dr. Nicola Nixon who’ve inspired her to keep coming back. Nixon is an associate professor in Concordia’s English department and Xenos-Whiston’s professor this semester.
“It’s not so unusual to have certain older post-retirement people in your courses, auditing,” said Nixon.
“Of course, they don’t want to write essays or write exams or any of those things and her willingness to do so, I find it quite admirable, But for her, it’s part of, you know, kind of immersing herself in the course, as opposed to just having a passive relationship to it.”
Xenos-Whiston and Professor Nixon have known each other for about five years now. “At first it was basically a professor-student relationship,” said Nixon. “I did go to her birthday party this year […] I suppose we’re more friends now than the first few years she was taking courses.”
Nixon says Xenos-Whiston is a good student, she engages with the class and brings in a lot of her own lived experience. Even considering her age, getting good grades has never been something she has struggled with.
“If I go home, I could write a paper, get it in tomorrow and get an A,” she said. “My transcript is all As.” This is all but one failure from the year when she took philosophy.
However, school has not been her only hobby over the past 92 years. Exercise has been important to her for much of her life and she was an avid swimmer and walker for some time. A love for contemporary art led her to guide tours at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts between 1995 and 2005.
Also a passionate music fan, she would go to concerts every other week, frequently attending the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the opera occasionally. Her love for music led her to spend years attempting to learn to play piano, but she never quite got the hang of it. “My family struggled, suffered and listened to me for about ten years try to learn the piano,” she said.
“When I die and go to heaven, I’m going to tell her, she was unfair to give me such a love of music but not the skill to do it.”
Despite not being able to play piano, Mary Xenos-Whiston has accomplished much in her life. At 92 years old she holds four degrees, “Most of it out of sheer curiosity and for pleasure’s sake rather than anything else,” said her daughter.
But Xenos-Whiston still plans on taking courses. Her only dilemma is deciding if she will leave English for a while and take some more FFAR courses. When asked if she had ever considered taking Hip Hop: Beats, Rhymes and Life, a popular FFAR course at Concordia, she said she hadn’t, but did add “maybe in another 10 years.”