Kay Castagnoli has spent more than six decades on a college campus, first as a student, then as a researcher and professor. Castagnoli eventually retired from teaching chemistry at Virginia Tech, at which point she went right back to school — as a student.

During spring 2023 commencement, Castagnoli will claim the unique distinction of being the oldest individual to earn a bachelor’s degree at Virginia Tech. At 85 1/2 years of age, Castagnoli will earn her Bachelor of Arts in music, summa cum laude and with honors distinctions, adding another achievement to her impressive academic resume and career.

“I love learning,” Castagnoli said. “I always loved going to school. I love being on a campus.”

As a teenager in Southern California, Castagnoli studied advanced courses in the sciences at a local community college and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, where she stood out as a woman graduating with a degree in chemistry. A chemist and researcher, Castagnoli moved from the Bay Area to Blacksburg, Virginia, with her husband, Neal, in 1987, where she continued her research and began her teaching career. Both Castagnolis retired after years of service as professors in Virginia Tech’s Department of Chemistry.

Castagnoli didn’t pick up golf clubs or a start new hobby. Instead, she decided to return to an old interest – her piano — and to pursue a degree in music. In 2007, she enrolled at Virginia Tech and registered for a class or two every semester.

“I thought it was wonderful to have a nontraditional student in class, particularly one who had been a higher ed teacher herself for many years,” said Rick Masters, associate professor of piano and collaborative piano at Virginia Tech. “She was a terrific model to her fellow students. She asked many, many questions; fully participated in classroom discussions; took copious notes; came to office hours; and aced all of her exams.”

Castagnoli credits her family, professors, and teachers at Virginia Tech and the community for helping her succeed in getting her music degree. She is the only music major and one of five students from the School of Performing Arts nominated for the Phi Beta Kappa Society, which honors excellence in the liberal arts and sciences. Castagnoli approached every assignment with an intellectual curiosity and shared the pure joy she felt from learning with others.

Castagnoli’s experience at Virginia Tech included working toward an Honors College diploma, which enabled her to take courses in a range of subjects as well as student-led academic programming. She was an active participant in her honors courses and the perspective she shared was often one of “living history.”

“Being in honors classes was tremendous,” said Castagnoli, who was awarded the honors scholar diploma for the work she completed in the Honors College. “I took some of the most exciting classes on so many topics, even music.”

Anne-Lise Velez taught Castagnoli in several classes and spoke highly of her active participation and adaptability.

“She was always willing to try new things and adopt new technologies for the success of the project. Her willingness to come along with the process when we were offering very differently structured courses like SuperStudio made other students more willing to be open to new class structures and ideas, and helped encourage faculty that our ideas could work. I learned quite a lot from Kay, and she is a reminder that one should always keep learning and reinventing,” Velez said.

Castagnoli’s love of music and the piano rank just slightly behind her love of her family and her love of learning. There were a few times when Castagnoli doubted herself and wasn’t sure if she could continue her quest to receive her music degree. Her family, Neal, their five children, and nine grandchildren supported her and encouraged her to pursue her dreams.

“When I felt like I was on a slow path or got tired, one of our daughters would always tell me, ‘You can do it, you can do it!’ I’ve been so fortunate, I’ve had good people who helped me along the way, including good teachers and a wonderful  husband and family,” Castagnoli said. “It’s quite a life. I’m so blessed.”

One of Castagnoli’s goals was to play Sergei Rachmaninoff’s "Piano Concerto No. 3," a work often described as the “Mount Everest" of piano concertos. The piece is musically and technically challenging for the pianist, featuring fleet, intricate keyboard figuration that alternates with brawny chordal passagework. Castagnoli was attracted to the concerto for its intensity and depth as well the supreme challenge it posed. 

“This is quite a difficult piece, the sort of thing most pianists tackle as graduate students,” Masters said. “Kay worked her butt off, and at her final recital at Virginia Tech, she played the last movement. It was a blast to hear her play it, knowing how much it meant to her.”

The preparation for her final recital was similar to the practice and commitment she displayed before the inaugural Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition in 1999. Castagnoli was studying Russian repertoire and was invited as one of 99 of the nation’s outstanding adult amateur pianists to perform before a large audience in Fort Worth, Texas.

“That Steinway was the most gorgeous piano I have ever played on in my life,” Castagnoli said. “There was a low G on that piano, I hit it once, and it immediately ran through my brain while I was playing, ‘I get to hit that note again.’ The things you remember.”

Some of Castagnoli's other favorite memories include her recent experiences as a Virginia Tech student. Instead of looking back, though, she's already looking ahead to the fall semester.

"I'm going to finish my degree in Italian next,” Castagnoli said.

Written by Rose Carter