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Boomers Back in School

Older adults filling the desks at colleges

Gale Gillespie
     I recently lunched with my oldest friend, whom I’ve known since the first grade. The meeting brought up many memories, mostly of high school and college. I enjoyed the learning, but those days were punctuated by the stress of succeeding so I could have a “good future” and the anxiety of paying for it.
      Over the years, I’ve continued to enjoy learning but with a career and a family to take care of, there wasn’t much time for it. Now, as a retiree, I still have the desire to learn and now I can.
      I am not alone; many older adults are actively engaged in learning. It’s not surprising since we have the time, we have the money and we generally have no reason to stress about grade point averages or getting into a school or career.
Why go back to school?
       My own experiences and observations indicate three reasons my demographic is returning to the classroom. There certainly may be others. This is what I have observed, in no particular order:
1. To learn and perfect new skills and hobbies.
      I’ve been a life-long woodworker, but always had an interest in metal work.  Through the wonders of Google, I discovered that Community College of Baltimore County offers a curriculum in machine shop. I had the motivation, the time and the funds. It turns out it’s not as expensive as I thought: If you’re over 60 and a Maryland resident, tuition is waived at state colleges, including community colleges. 
      The other obstacle to overcome was the stress of being back in a college level credit class after [redacted] years. That problem was solved with one little check box: “AUDIT”. When you audit a class, you can do as much or as little as you want. There is no grade. Of course, like any class, you get out what you put in. I didn’t work any less in these classes, I just did it without stress. After four classes over a couple of years, I was ready to be a machinist. I bought the tools and now spend hours of bliss down in my shop working my metal projects.
2. To enhance current activities.
      Education can make the things we already do faster and easier. Our local community colleges and other organizations offer classes for important life skills in their continuing education (i.e. non-credit) curriculums. 
       As I approached age 65, I realized I would soon be switching from corporate medical insurance to Medicare, which I knew absolutely nothing about. Anne Arundel Community College (AACC) came to the rescue with a four-hour seminar Introduction to Medicare. It not only filled in a lot of the blanks, but pointed me to resources where I could get additional answers.
     Another skill that was fortified by a college class is cooking. I was fortunate when Bay Weekly sent me to do a story on the AACC Culinary Arts Institute’s hands-on cooking classes. These are one evening, get-your-hands-dirty courses on a specific topic. Since then, I’ve been hooked, taking two or three cooking classes a year, usually on things I am clueless about. The most recent was Sous Vide Cooking —I didn’t know what that was either. The next class on my list is The Artisan Pretzel. (At least I already know what a pretzel is, even if I have no idea how to make one).
    Sometimes we may learn skills more important than cooking dinner. My friend Bruce Becker of Pasadena is a retired quality control specialist for the underwater engineering industry and an active member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. He is taking classes at AACC in the Homeland Security curriculum. “As a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, I have been involved with homeland security activities. The classes are giving me the bigger picture of how my activities fit into the larger process of keeping the nation safe,” Becker says.
3. For the joy of learning and social interaction.
     Speaking with both students and instructors, I realized that for most people, any class taken in person can provide both knowledge and social interaction- to varying degrees. When I took metal working in Baltimore most of the other students were young, trying to launch careers in the field. We were friendly, but really didn’t have much in common. The more you have in common with your fellow students, the more social that course will be. Most everywhere, older adults can find places to learn and social interaction. In Anne Arundel County we are fortunate to have a program designed to create a community for those adults to both interact and learn. Many other places have similar programs. They might have different names but have the same objectives. 
The Peer Learning Partnership
      If my experience taking metalworking is a good example of maximum learning with minimal social benefits, The Peer Learning Partnership, run under the auspices of AACC, provides both. 
The PLP is best described by past president Frank Capuzzi of Severna Park,as  “peers learning from peers.”
      "Participants bring their interests, knowledge, experiences and passions to the group; something that isn’t characteristic of the traditional student/teacher relationship—which is why we call ourselves ‘facilitators’ rather than teachers or instructors,” he says.
      Capuzzi thinks the PLP is something special. “The PLP is different from the typical continuing education offered elsewhere. The objective of many continuing education programs is to impart specific knowledge. The PLP objective is to maintain a lifelong learning community, with classes being an essential part of that experience.”
      The PLP community offers dozens of classes, weekly seminars, special interest groups, educational trips and tour and social events. Current PLP membership hovers at about 500. 
      A typical PLP student might be Gale Gillespie, one of my neighbors who has an avid interest in astronomy and participates in astronomy classes and the astronomy interest group. 
      “I like to learn, and I find it rewarding to be among people who share an interest and enthusiasm for learning, especially in a topic I am fascinated with,” Gillespie says.
      The origin of a thirst for knowledge is as varied as the people who quest for it, sometimes a life-long obsession, sometimes a very recent curiosity. 
      For Gillespie, “It was in the 1980s on the beach in North Carolina, on a very clear night, watching a meteor shower. It took me back to many childhood memories of growing up in the country, gazing up at the sky, wondering what it was all about. I realized I never satisfied that wonder, so when we got back to Severna Park, I bought a book on astronomy and star charts, and began learning about the universe.”
      The other side of that coin is Herb Frey, a retired NASA scientist who specialized in the lunar and Martian geological evolution. Herb is a PLP facilitator, teaching some of the classes Gillespie takes. 
      “The stuff I studied and the field I worked in is so exciting,” says Frey. “Every day we learn something new about our place in the solar system and the universe. I love sharing that and all we have learned and are continuing to learn. And it forces me to keep up with those areas even though now I am retired.” 
      Other instructors – all volunteers —echoed these sentiments. Capuzzi had an additional motivation. “I get to do something I was never able to do professionally: share my passion for philosophy. I received my PhD in philosophy from Duquesne University, but then spent my career in public TV and in business, focused mainly on educational and training programs. PLP lets me return to my first loves—philosophy and literature—and share them with other people in a friendly atmosphere.”
     Many retirees, myself included, believe there is an additional benefit of lifelong learning, whether it’s from the PLP or any other source. 
     “The brain is a muscle. To stay healthy, it needs exercise, too, like cardio exercises for the mind,” says Cappuzzi. “Most of all, lifelong learning programs offer us a way to age gracefully by staying intellectually involved, engaged, and interested in the universe of knowledge around us.” 
     Learning new hobbies, getting better at the things you do, satisfying a quest for knowledge, keeping your mental muscles exercised. Whatever motivates you, my advice to my fellow seniors: Participate and enjoy—it’s never been cheaper, easier, and more fun than it is now.


Bob’s tips for senior learning:
       There are too many opportunities for adult learning to try to list them here. Search online to see what’s available in your area. Here are some key words to use, along with your location: “Lifelong Learning Programs” or “Adult education” or “Continuing education.”
Example: Googling “adult learning Calvert county” returned about two dozen interesting results.
       Check the events sections of local papers. CBM Bay Weekly often lists classes, presentations and seminars that may appeal to older students.
       Don’t be afraid to take credit classes. Just check the “audit” button when registering, and all the stress, and as much of the work as you want are gone.
       All Maryland state and community colleges waive tuition for retired seniors over the age of 60. Note: Tuition is waived, but not all fees. Usually tuition is the lion’s share of the cost, but not always.
       Register early; classes can fill quickly. The registration process varies at each school. An in-person visit might be required for the first credit class you take.
      Have fun, enjoy yourself. You’re doing this because you want to, not because you have to.