At 76, Frances New will be the oldest of 5,500 Arizona State University students receiving a degree at commencement Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena.
But for the Scottsdale grandmother, who will turn 77 on May 29, age is truly a state of mind.
"So long as you keep learning, age is relative," said New, who will receive a master’s degree in fine arts from ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, specializing in poetry.
New came to the United States in 1947 at age 19 from her native Tientsin, China, a city near Beijing.
She spoke only Mandarin. Other than a few Presbyterian ministers who fled China during the Communist takeover, she had no relatives or friends here.
"When I first came to America, everybody talked too fast," New said. "I didn’t think I could ever master the English language, but I kept trying."
New enrolled in Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., then moved to Seattle, where she attended Seattle Pacific College, graduating in 1949 with a degree in mathematics.
Frances and Thorndike New, an engineering stu- dent also from China, married, and the couple moved to Philadelphia and then Pittsburgh. In 1969, they relocated to Scottsdale, where he worked for Motorola Corp.
The couple raised five children, and Frances worked as a librarian at ASU for 26 years, retiring in 1996. Her husband died in 1980.
"I’ve always worked with students, and I’ve always felt like a student," said New, who earlier earned a master’s degree in library science at ASU.
Norman Dubie, one of her professors in the ASU creative writing program, praised New’s poetic skills.
"Frances is a wonderful writer," Dubie said. "Her poems are oddly memorable and animated. She takes images from Chinese and blends them into English."
Another of her professors, Alberto Rios, described New this way: "Some people come to class to write a story. Frances New is a story."
Rios said New’s approach to writing is not only creative, but also reflects her years of struggle in trying to bridge the gap between Chinese, a graphical language without much melody, and English, a more verbally animated language.
New describes the language differences this way: "Chinese is not musical, English is musical."
Carla Elling, coordinator of the creative writing program, said New is the oldest graduate, but "she looks 50 — or less."
New’s daughter, Emmeline New of Tempe, and her granddaughter, Sydney, 6, plan to attend the commencement at 10 a.m. Thursday as well as the convocation ceremony at 11 a.m. Friday, when New will participate with other graduates from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
"I’m not really surprised my mom is getting a master’s degree," Emmeline New said. "She has been studying all her life. It’s what she does."
Said Sydney: "I’m proud of my nana."