Irene Bilal-Engle will graduate next Saturday with honors as the oldest (a fact she is proud of) graduate in the history of Wittenberg University.
The 78-year-old was surprised to learn she has the distinction of being Witt’s oldest graduate ever as confirmed by Witt’s alumni office.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I never even thought about that. It’s an honor.”
The road to Bilal-Engle’s degree in history and minor in archaeology was not easy. She spent part of her teen years in Chicago and later lived in that city’s infamous projects. Earning a college degree meant a lot to her. But her mother would remind her that in those days, the world was not as kind when you were black.
“I wanted to be an airline stewardess,” Bilal-Engle said. “My mom said, ‘you can’t do that.’ I said, ‘why not?’ She said, ‘because you’re black.’ It made me really want to go and be an airline stewardess.”
That dream never materialized, but Bilal-Engle said she kept dreaming.
“Once I got married and started a family, I would take classes now and then,” Bilal-Engle said.
Bilal-Engle’s young adult life would not be easy, either.
According to Bilal-Engle, living in the Chicago projects “was horrible. The projects are the worst place people can live.”
When she was 25, Bilal-Engle’s husband was murdered in Chicago. She was left to raise her small children. She would remarry and now has six children including two stepchildren, whom went to college. She also has 16 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. All of her children went to college.
“I was 70 when I came here [to Witt]. Everyone has been wonderful. They really have helped me,” Bilal-Engle said, who took her first classes in the fall of 2011.
“I asked for the application and filled it out and brought it back and I started school that August and here we are today,” Bilal-Engle said.
Bilal-Engle is a member of Alpha Sigma Lambda, Phi Alpha Theta and Phi Theta Kappa honor societies. She is also active and a founding member of STRENGTH, Witt’s non-traditional student organization, as well as Concerned Black Students (CBS), the Witt Investment Club, the Archaeology Club and the History Club.
“Of course, being black came into play sometimes,” Bilal-Engle said. “Some days it was an obstacle. It’s like they wouldn’t tell you [that] you couldn’t do certain things, but it was in the atmosphere, especially when I was the only African-American in the class. It felt like I was being ostracized, not by the professors, but by the younger students. But once you got to know the students, things usually worked out.”
Helping to start STRENGTH has been important to Bilal-Engle.
“I think it’s brought attention to the way non-traditional students are ignored,” she said. “I do need to add that I have a lot of traditional classmates that I think highly of and they think highly of me.”
The Witt student said the Witt professors have been “wonderful, helpful, [and] considerate.”
Bilal-Engle named a few of the professors that have meant so much to her, including Professors Livingstone, Bailey, Brooks-Hedstrom, Raffensberger, Wilkinson, Andrews, Doubt, Henley, Zaharkov, Fallon, Mattison, Little, Tom Taylor, Provost Mary Zembar and added “so many others have encouraged me.”
It is a mutual admiration club.
“For nearly five years, I have had the pleasure of knowing ‘Mrs. Irene’ around the halls of Hollenbeck here at Witt,” Professor of Philosophy Julius Bailey said. “First overhearing her engaged in deep conversations with the History Department faculty, then she would later surprise me and pop up as an enrollee in my Philosophy and Hip Hop course in Spring of 2014. I was able to witness, first hand, the wonderful spirit that has everyone smiling when Irene comes in their presence. Irene is a no-nonsense, no-pretense woman. She calls it how she sees it and walks it like she talks it.”
“Our relationship later developed into daily encounters, donned with a hug, a kiss on the cheek, an inquiry about my mother,” he said. “You see my mother was always fodder for classroom lectures and she would admonish me for talking about my momma in class and not talking to her more regularly. As fate would have it, through phone calls and finally a meeting in 2018, Irene and my mother met. For me it was a special connection of a woman who birthed me and a woman who brings me life with each campus encounter. The third floor of Hollenbeck, and the computer lab on the first floor, should both have a plaque with her name on it as she spent as much time here as I am sure she did at home.”
“Irene is one of my favorite people, and she always has time to stop and ask how I’m doing,” Professor of English Mike Mattison said. “We’ll chat about the weather, our families and about classes. She is one of the most dedicated students I know, and the advisors in the Writing Center refer to her affectionately as ‘Miss Irene.’ When she graduates, I shall miss seeing her in the hallways, calling out and smiling. She, though, deserves to celebrate her graduation–she has earned it.”
Bilal-Engle is also known for handing out bubble gum in the computer lab.
Bilal-Engle’s advice for new Witt students is, “I would invite them to get involved and be honest. Do their work, try to help others. Be true to themselves. Don’t try to cheat.”
In addition, Bilal-Engle has advice for Witt’s black students, “Be the best you can be. Be honest with yourself, the other students and your professors. Don’t be afraid to speak up when you feel you’re being treated differently.”
Bilal-Engle might have missed out on graduation after an accident a couple of weeks ago. She forgot to put her car in park on the hill outside of Weaver Chapel and was injured when her car rolled.
“I laid down to keep the car from dragging me down the hill,” Bilal-Engle said. Her car then hit another car and the car door ran over the top of her, causing a bad gash in her leg.
“The Witt police [as well as the medics and students who helped] were fantastic,” Bilal-Engle said.
Her family will join in the celebrations. “They’ve been a big help to me, especially after my husband died [leading her to take a semester off],” Bilal-Engle said. “I feel so blessed. God has been so good to me.”
Bilal-Engle will be receiving a special award from STRENGTH for her inspiration and dedication, henceforth called the “Irene Bilal-Engle Legacy Award.” It will be awarded annually in her name.
“I’m thrilled. It’s such a big honor,” Bilal-Engle said
Bilal-Engle is excited about graduation day.
“I am so glad I am finally accomplishing what I set out to do when I was a young girl,” Bilal-Engle said. “I always wanted to get a college degree. It’s taken my whole life to do it, but I’m finally doing it.”
She said she may “jump up and down” when she is handed her diploma.
In the fall, Bilal-Engle plans to return to Witt to take more classes. She is a Tiger after all. Just listen to her roar.