She wanted to help her grandson. And at 64, she got her UMSL degree to do just that

ST. LOUIS • Everlene Falconer wasn’t sure she wanted to go after a degree when she first registered for college at age 60. She just knew she wanted to help her 12-year-old grandson, Donovan.

Donovan was diagnosed with autism at an early age. Falconer, now 64, said Donovan is high functioning and does a lot of things she finds amazing.

“He makes his own videos, and he’s the voice for all the characters,” Falconer said. “He’s written a 35-page book with illustrations. He built a bus out of Lego blocks.”

Helping Donovan access the world and being prepared for any help he needed was Falconer’s original motivation for pursuing a degree. Falconer said Donovan has enjoyed learning with her. Every day when she came home from school, she showed Donovan and his brother, Gabriel, 11, what she learned in school that day.

After giving it some thought and consulting with University of Missouri-St. Louis advisers, Falconer decided to go for a bachelor of educational studies. The program is suitable for someone who wants to help others grow and develop, said academic adviser Ellen Duncan.

On Saturday, Falconer graduated with a class of more than 1,100 UMSL students, with more than 260 graduating from the College of Education.

The average UMSL graduate is 26. Seeing a student of Falconer’s age is unusual, but not unheard of, according to Duncan.

The college path ended up leading Falconer to helping other people, too.

While getting her bachelor’s, Falconer worked with participants in UMSL’s Succeed program, which helps students with intellectual and developmental disabilities live life more independently.

“She was helping them with homework, helping with social-emotional skills, being a life coach and putting all those grandmotherly qualities to use in helping people succeed in higher education,” said Theresa Coble, professor of experiential and family education at UMSL. Falconer was in one of Coble’s classes two years ago.

Falconer moved on to become a continuing education instructor at Paraquad, a local nonprofit that helps the disabled live more independent lives through skill development. She teaches night classes that help students with computer, money, reading and storytelling skills.

The work fits Falconer’s only requirement for a teaching career.

“I knew I didn’t want to be in traditional classroom setting,” she said. “I wanted to do something more private with individuals and going to people’s homes to work with them and their child or adult with autism.”

She’s a full-time job coach at Paraquad in addition to her part-time gig in continuing education. Although it wasn’t part of the original plan when she returned to school, Falconer is enjoying working at Paraquad and doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon.

“We have a lot of fun in my classroom,” Falconer said. “It’s really nice to work with people who really want to learn.”

Falconer’s supervisor for the part-time job, Jennifer Haycraft, said she knew Falconer was the right person for the job when she interviewed her.

Students, Haycraft said, “find that she is compassionate, but also challenging, which is a good mix. She wants them to succeed and they can tell that.”