“Welcome to Arkansas State University,” smiled the Dean, an attractive young blonde woman, giving new students at Orientation a short and inspiring speech.
Everyone in the room clapped, even the Dean, but of course she was applauding us, the students. I looked around the large, crowded room and saw one or two who looked like me, at least they had grey hair. For all I knew I would be the only student over the age of sixty in the whole place, but I hoped not. I was so very nervous, but excited at the same time. This was my first day of college and I was sixty-nine years old.
Classes were held at the campus or online, but I had opted for on-campus classes for this starting semester, as I really wanted the full college experience. I have always yearned for a college education, but life events blocked my dreams. Now I had the time and opportunity, but not a lot of spare cash. At the state university, students over the age of sixty did not have to pay tuition fees, just college fees and, of course, those very expensive textbooks. My boss, the director of the women’s shelter where I worked as an Advocate, suggested I might enjoy classes at the local college, and friends and family encouraged me. When my daughter went back to school in her forties to finish her degree online, I listened in on her lectures and, to my amazement, not only understood them but enjoyed them! That was the boost needed to start my journey into lifelong learning.
New students were given a grand tour of the campus, but sadly I couldn’t keep up with the group who walked too fast for me – the campus was big and widely spaced. A kind woman of about forty asked me if I was alright, and walked back to the student center with me. We were given tee shirts, flash drives, pens, pencils, notebooks, and other school supplies all in a sturdy carrier bag. Next came a meeting with our Student Advisor, who looked a bit stunned when she realized I was the student and not just someone’s grandma! But everyone was friendly and courteous.
My first class was two days later and I arrived early because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find the classroom! And, yes, I couldn’t find it and had to return to the front desk to ask directions. Embarrassing, but I was determined and I was getting used to sticking out like a sore thumb.
Next to the Library, or the “stacks” as I learned to call them, there was a large array of computers for the use of students and the general public. I had an hour and a half until my next class, so I went there and started working on my first assignment, a speech about why I was going to college! What with class schedules and personal free time, I found myself sitting with the same group at the computers many times, and we became friends. On one side of me were two young girls studying in the nursing program. I don’t know what label to put on them, and wouldn’t want to label anyone, but they were very affectionate with each other. It was sweet and nice, and far better than if they had been quarrelling. They would tell me their troubles sometimes, and I often felt like a substitute grandmother. On the other side was an older African American man named Charlie, who was part of the literacy program and was hoping to get a job with the City as a sanitation truck driver. He was sweet and kind also, and always had a smile and a positive word. I tried putting myself in his shoes, but found it hard to imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn’t been able to read from a young age. Charlie was having a hard time, so we encouraged him and helped him when he shyly asked us a question, which was rare. We admired his hard work and perseverance. He was still working hard at the end of the school year, but the next year I switched to taking online classes and no longer met up with my computer friends. Two years later I was finishing up my Associate’s Degree and out at the campus when I saw him at the computer again. He was filling out forms to apply for jobs at the City, at a local factory, and right there on the campus. I knew he would soon have a job, and gave him my email address asking that he let me know how he did. He was a great example of a successful mature student.
A liberal arts degree was my choice, so I got to learn and write about literature, history, and philosophy, my three favorite subjects, and of course I loved all these classes. It was thrilling to see Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations through the eyes of my twenty year old classmates, with one memorable class discussion between those who empathized with Pip and those who despised him. We had to write poetry, and the work of my fellow students was amazing. The class clown had us all in tears with the pathos of his poem about a dog.
On the plus side, the most fun classes were the history classes, thanks in large part to an exceptional teacher. The best assignment we had was a huge one, involving a lot of research and work, but the most enjoyable: we had to describe a dinner party with twelve guests of our choosing, including the menu. We were allowed to use time travel and translators, so guests from the time of the cavemen until a current political figure were possible. I remembered a television or radio show from a long time ago where they did this, and found a little about it. So far I have not had a more enjoyable assignment.
On the minus side, for me and several other students, was college algebra, the least fun and the most work. Mathematics in all its glory has always been difficult for me. I appreciate how amazing it must be to understand it, and to solve problems with ease, but I never came near to that. Not even close. Eventually I scraped past the pass/fail mark and passed, and lifelong learner I may aspire to be, but I never want to tackle anything like it again. I lived in mortal fear of the tests and exams. Wouldn’t my grandchildren get a kick out of knowing that Grandma got a “D” or that Grandma failed Alegbra!
The best and most lasting impression I came away with after my first year of college on-campus was that the world would be in good hands when my generation had gone and these young people would be in charge. I was pleasantly surprised to find strong ethics and solid humanitarian values among these young college students. They cared about each other and their world more than I remember my generation had done. I had been afraid I would find them rude and too casual, but just the opposite, I found them courteous and sincere. Of course they were playful too, and I enjoyed that a lot – a group of people my age are generally not playful!
By the year 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the number of Americans over 65 will have doubled since 2012; an increase from 13% in 2012 to 20% in 2050 of the total population. Our aging population will put a strain on social services and more people over 65 will need to continue to work. Older adults will also need continuing, lifelong education to keep pace with new technology and scientific discoveries in the digital future of our world.
Do we stop learning when we retire? Most definitely not. There are many well-documented scientific experiments which show that we continue to learn and our brains continue to grow well into old age, especially if we keep our minds active by learning new subjects or playing games and puzzles. If you can use a computer reasonably well, try one of the many free online courses provided by some of the world’s best universities.
I encourage mature people to keep learning, whether to pursue a creative retirement, gain new skills for work, contribute their years of wisdom learned, or for the sheer joy of lifelong learning. I love it!