How Sandra got her groove back

As she watched the mountains of Colorado Springs fade away in her rearview mirror while leaving her first student teaching experience, Sandra Baas couldn’t help but cry. The tears shed were happy ones, representing the deep gratitude she felt for the experience, and excitement over new adventures — another student teaching experience in Appleton, Wisconsin, and her upcoming graduation from the school that made it all possible.

“I already know I'm gonna bawl like a baby on graduation day, knowing that this journey is gonna’ end,” Baas, who graduated in May, said. “It has been such an inspirational and motivational experience for me. I am not the same Ms. Baas that started school — in any way, shape or form. And I wouldn’t be this had I not gone to college.”

These experiences are emotional for anyone, but they’re especially poignant for Baas, a nontraditional student who came to UNI three years ago, at the age of 52. It was her first time attending a four-year university, and the road to these milestones was a rocky one. Baas had spent the past 28 years in an emotionally abusive marriage that was robbing her of her naturally optimistic personality.

“I was growing old and turning into a bitter woman and that’s not who I am,” Baas said. “I wasn’t the inner joy person anymore.”

University of Northern Iowa graduate Sandra Baas.

So Baas made the decision to file for divorce, began taking night classes at her community college and got her associate’s degree in three years. Then, she decided to quit her job and continue her education at UNI.

“I had always wanted a degree. By getting out of [my marriage], I decided, ‘This is what you’ve always wanted, now it’s time for you to be selfish,’” said Baas. “I thought, ‘You’re not getting any younger. It’s now or never.’”

That’s when everything changed.

Making changes

Baas dual-majored in elementary education and middle-level education. She’s always had a love of learning and wanted to instill that love in a new generation.

“I don’t know if I ever really made the conscious decision to go into teaching, but I just love learning,” she said. “If I can just instill the love of learning that I’ve got into students, that’s what teaching is. And if you’re going to be a teacher in the state of Iowa, you go to UNI.”

Despite concerns about her age, Baas fit right in — more than that, she made lasting connections with her classmates.

“They just accepted me as one of them. I was just another student,” she said. “They didn't look at me as the mom. But they all knew that if they ever had a problem and needed a mom, they could come to me. So I made some great, lifelong friends.”

Deciding to go back to school full-time at her age can be a challenge — but for Baas, the experience led to some positive personal changes. Baas was growing concerned with her family’s history of health issues and decided to do something about it.

She began walking daily around campus and got a Fitbit to track her progress. She was in it just for the health benefits of exercise. During her time at UNI, Baas racked up more than 18 million steps and over 7,700 miles and lost 65 pounds.

“I never dreamt in a million years I’d be doing this at my age,” said Baas. “That’s what UNI did to me! Every time there was something new I had not done, I tried to do it, just to say I did it.”

Getting her joy back

In addition to positive personal changes, this attitude helped Baas make some bold career moves. She took on student teaching positions in Colorado Springs, Colorado and Appleton, Wisconsin.

“At UNI, I had to come way out of my comfort zone. I’d never lived anywhere but Algona all my life,” she said. “I wanted as many experiences as I could get. That’s part of the student teaching — who gets the opportunity to go to Colorado Springs to do student teaching?”

And though Baas graduated in May, she’s not quite ready to stop exploring new experiences.

“I did fall in love with Cedar Falls. But would I go back out to Colorado? I think so,” she said.  “It’s kind of wherever this degree takes me. Where do I want to live? Where do I want to start my life again? It’s an awesome feeling, but a daunting one. Crazy to think at my age, I’m considering, ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’”

And her experience at UNI has helped her believe in a number of possibilities. More than that, it’s helped her believe in herself — and her inner joy — again.

“UNI helped me become the woman I was meant to be. It’s given me a life I’ve never dreamt I could have. It’s brought me my joy back,” she said. “Life’s too short to settle. If there’s something that you’ve always wanted to do or see or accomplish, you're not going to get any closer to that goal by doing nothing about it. And there’s no better time than today to start.”