By Chris Putnam
This fall, Dr. Jay Cowsill (PhD) returned to classes at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) for the 25th year in a row.
The start of a new term is still exciting.
“I’m a person who just loves study. I’ve always loved it and I’ve loved learning,” says Cowsill (PhD’10, BA&Sc’21).
The 74-year-old is currently working on his sixth university degree, and he has no plans to stop.
“All the years that I’ve spent here, it’s been a matter of trying to understand the world, to speak more clearly about the issues that face us, to help other people. It’s a matter of intellectual culture for me. And I imagine that I will continue studying at this university until I am no longer capable of thinking,” he says.
Born and raised in California, Cowsill earned his first degree—a Bachelor of Arts in English—from the University of California, Berkeley in 1969. He was profoundly affected by the famous Berkeley Free Speech Movement, in which thousands of students protested for their rights to speech and academic freedom on campus.
Cowsill remembers walking to Berkeley as “a naïve 17-year-old” one morning in December 1964 and witnessing hundreds of peaceful protesters being hauled away by police in one of the largest peacetime arrests in American history.
“It just shattered all of my illusions about being in that country.”
He became involved in the free speech, civil rights and antiwar movements. By the time he graduated from Berkeley, Cowsill felt alienated from his home country and was determined to move elsewhere. He and his wife emigrated to Canada in 1973.
“We found a refuge in this country. And we’ve loved it ever since the day that we came,” he says.
Cowsill spent the next 28 years working in the electrical industry in British Columbia.
“I had decided back when I was 12 years old that I wanted to devote my life to the study of literature. But you know, things happen—I had a family and I loved raising them. And so I just had to put these literary aspirations on hold for a quarter of a century.”
By 1997, his children had moved out and his retirement had begun. Cowsill enrolled in full-time studies at the College of Emmanuel and St. Chad at USask, intending to become an Anglican priest.
His plan changed when Cowsill’s professors spotted his talent for literary studies and encouraged him to pursue his original dream of being a scholar.
He earned two master’s degrees focused on the study of the Jewish Bible from St. Andrew’s College at USask, then enrolled in a graduate program of the Department of English. In 2010, he was awarded his PhD in English.
Cowsill’s next move was unusual. His PhD studies behind him, he reenrolled at the College of Arts and Science—this time as an undergraduate student.
“I thought, well, I’ve got a PhD. I’ve sort of reached the pinnacle. Now I can go on and study other things that interest me.”
A world of ideas
“I’m sort of a generalist,” Cowsill says.
He has a talent for understatement. Cowsill has a working knowledge of a dozen languages ranging from Spanish to Biblical Hebrew. During his PhD studies in English, he contributed to research into cancer and aging led by Dr. Ulrich Teucher (PhD) of USask’s Department of Psychology and Health Studies.
For his second turn as an undergrad, Cowsill wanted to focus on something further outside his comfort zone. After a stint as a mathematics major, he eventually settled on pursuing a Bachelor of Arts and Science in environment and society from the Department of Geography and Planning.
The multidisciplinary program combines perspectives in the natural and social sciences to study the relationship between humans and their environment.
“I just became engrossed in that. It rewired my mind to think in a more disciplined way. I had never thought scientifically before,” Cowsill says.
Cowsill graduated in spring 2021 as one of the College of Arts and Science’s top students, winning the University Medal in the BA&Sc Degree and the award for Most Outstanding Graduate in the Environment and Society Program.
This fall, he is back in class with plans to finish a Bachelor of Arts (honours) in archaeology and anthropology. After that, it might be a degree in linguistics, or regional and urban planning.
Cowsill feels perfectly at home in the classroom, although his presence can come as a surprise to professors and students.
“I think I became an urban legend for students in the Department of Geography (and Planning),” Cowsill jokes.
“Every professor that I’ve ever seen says, ‘I’ve never seen anybody with a doctorate taking undergraduate courses.’ But these disciplines are entirely new to me.”
Interacting with students at the start of their academic journeys is part of the reward for Cowsill.
“I love talking to young students and I’m always encouraging them. I tell them there’s a whole world of ideas out there that you should also be exploring.”
Cowsill believes USask should be seen as a place for everyone, regardless of their age or status.
“There’s so much more to it than just job training. There’s intellectual culture. There’s spiritual growth. And you never stop learning or growing. It’s a lifelong process.”
Lessons from a lifelong student
Dr. Jay Cowsill (PhD) has been studying at USask for a quarter-century and earned more than 460 university credits. Here are some of his tips.
Favourite instructors: Dr. Krys Chutko (PhD), Rod Johnson and Bert Weichel, Department of Geography and Planning; Dr. Sandy Ervin (PhD), Department of Archaeology and Anthropology; Dr. David Jobling (PhD), St. Andrews College; Dr. Julio Torres-Recinos (PhD), Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies.
Advice to retirees: Don’t be afraid to go back to school, and be sure to take advantage of USask tuition waivers for people over 65: “The newly retired can face a crisis in their lives because their identity has always been wrapped up in what they did for a living. But there’s lots of opportunities.”
Advice to new students: Don’t avoid classes with lots of reading and don’t rely on PowerPoint slides to teach you everything: “Build a love of reading. To me it’s been a mainstay my entire life.”