Nancy Napierala took a test years ago to determine what field of academic study best suited her interests, personality and career goals.
The test results made one thing clear: Napierala should choose a subject that would keep her in school as long as possible.
She took the answer to heart. Even after receiving a bachelor’s degree in 2000 and a master’s degree in 2007, Napierala stayed enrolled at the University at Buffalo.
And now, at age 78, the great-grandmother and former law office bookkeeper has earned a doctoral degree in American studies from UB.
Napierala, of Cheektowaga, is among thousands of undergraduate and graduate students being feted this weekend, when many of the area’s colleges and universities, including UB, host commencement ceremonies.
“Being a college student is fun, and it’s what I’d rather be doing more than anything else,” Napierala said. “I love school. I love reading and research and writing.”
Napierala said her age was rarely a factor during her studies – even when in classrooms with fellow students young enough to be her grandchildren.
She did, however, admit to an inability to pull the dreaded “all-nighter” to meet a deadline.
“I can’t anymore,” she said. “Now, at 11 o’clock, my brain shuts off and I go to sleep, wherever I am.”
Napierala’s unlikely journey to a doctorate began more than 20 years ago, when she suffered a self-described nervous breakdown and ended up under the care of a psychiatrist.
The doctor asked her what she had always wanted to do. Napierala had a ready response – be a full-time college student.
So the psychiatrist made higher education part of Napierala’s treatment plan.
She was further encouraged by the results of the career test she took at SUNY Buffalo State, which indicated she was qualified for college and would be able to do college-level work.
“It’s really what I wanted to do, so it gave me confidence to keep doing that,” she said.
Napierala initially enrolled at the University of Northern Illinois, and then took classes at Erie Community College and at SUNY Brockport, where she studied recreation.
She later transferred to UB to study early childhood development, and despite some difficulties with courses in statistics and anatomy, she persevered and earned a bachelor’s degree at age 64.
“There was a math class she had to take several times, because math is not her strong suit. But she never gave up,” said her daughter, Kathy Napierala, who lives in Silver Spring, Md. “She’s been so tenacious about it.
“Everyone is incredibly proud of her,” she said. “This is the first Ph.D. in our family.”
Nancy Napierala, who also has a son, three grandchildren and a 2-year-old great-grandchild, had been a bookkeeper on and off for nearly 40 years. But with higher education providing potent medicine in her battle with depression and anxiety, it made little sense for her to return to the workforce.
“Staying in school was more appropriate for me than trying to get a job,” she said.
Napierala, who is a Seneca, learned about UB’s Native American Studies program as an undergraduate student. Her interest in learning more about the life of her father, Hector Titus, a Seneca who had attended the controversial Thomas Indian School on the Cattaraugus Reservation, ultimately led Napierala to a broader exploration of Haudenosaunee history and culture.
For her master’s degree, she studied history, taking a year off while she and her husband, Daniel, cared for a granddaughter in their home. The subject of her master’s thesis was clan mothers.
Napierala wanted to delve even further into her studies, but she wasn’t sure if, at age 70, she’d be able to complete a doctoral degree.
She ran the idea by Oren R. Lyons, a highly regarded UB professor and clan chief of the Onondaga Nation.
“I asked him, and he just kind of grinned and said, ‘Why not?’ ” she recalled.
She discovered a compelling subject for her dissertation through her frequent conversations with Pearl White, a revered Seneca faithkeeper who grew up on a reservation and spent most of her adult life on Buffalo’s West Side.
Napierala had met White at a conference at Buffalo State, and began learning the Seneca, or Haudenosaunee, language from her. The two became close friends, and Napierala sometimes drove White to the reservation for festivals and other events.
“She was always telling me stories,” Napierala said. “Pearl at one point said, ‘I could write a book.’ ”
As Napierala looked into it, she learned that no one had written seriously about contemporary Senecas such as White and their fostering of Seneca religious beliefs and practices while living in an urban community.
Napierala spent years sifting through archives and interviewing White and other sources to gather first-hand accounts of the expression of Haudenosaunee culture in Buffalo. She decided to write the book that White had proposed.
Kari J. Winter, professor of transnational studies at UB and chairwoman of Napierala’s dissertation committee, described Napierala’s work as irreplaceable, especially after White died of cancer in 2012.
“If those oral histories are lost, they’re not ever going to be found again,” Winter said. “Nancy’s biography of Pearl is path-breaking, and it contributes in important ways to our understanding of Seneca history and the history of the Buffalo region.”
The fact that Napierala’s doctoral work wasn’t part of the process of building a resume for a career in academia in some ways makes it all the more impressive, Winter said.
“To me, it’s really what learning is all about,” she said. “It’s a contribution to knowledge and to learning in the purist sense.”
As many of her fellow doctoral degree recipients try to line up teaching jobs, Napierala will finally take a step back from campus and the rigors of research.
She never had her eyes on a faculty spot. She skipped Friday’s hooding ceremony to focus on revisions to her dissertation. For her, the work wasn’t about getting an advanced degree: it was about the joy of learning.
“What’s a Ph.D. going to do for me now?” she asked. “I’m not going to teach. I’m not looking for a job.”
Napierala is looking forward to celebrating her 55th wedding anniversary with her husband, who recently retired from Bear Metal Works, where he worked as a sheet metal mechanic.
Daniel Napierala always supported his wife’s lofty academic pursuits.
“I’m just a high school graduate. What are you going to do? It’s somebody’s dream,” he said. “It never bothered me.”
With her dissertation nearly complete – her revisions are due next week – Napierala intends to get back to regular exercise and enjoying family time. The couple is planning a vacation to Glacier National Park in Montana in August.
Afterward, Napierala said she hopes to convert her scholarly work into a book for a broader audience.
“The main thing I want to do is see this book published,” she said. “It’s an important book, and it’s a subject that hasn’t been done.”