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Cover Story: What's Your Major?

Aaron Dalton

They say you can’t go home again.

But fortunately, as many happy retired educators have found, the same logic does not apply to education—you certainly can go back to college again.

Statistics indicate that older Americans, many of whom have already retired from a successful career, are going back to school in record numbers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the most recent data (from October 2006) shows that more than 350,000 people age 55-and-over are enrolled in colleges and universities.

Since that age group is slated to grow by more than 10 million people between 2010 and 2015, we predict that the number of older Americans back to school will go up, too.

NEA-Retired members are no exception to this trend. In fact, as people who forged careers in the education world, retired teachers may be more likely than retirees from other professions to pursue continuing education in one form or another.

Some retirees go back to school to prepare for a second career. Others wish to fulfill long-held ambitions to achieve advanced degrees. Another group simply relishes the pleasure of learning for its own sake—especially when exams and term papers are optional!

Still, becoming a college student all over again can feel like a big commitment. You may be wondering whether it’s for you and how to get started. Using the experiences of some of your fellow NEA-Retired members, we’ve put together a primer on going back to the classroom—on the other side of the teacher’s desk!

Lesson 1: Research has its (financial) rewards

Teachers know that research is an essential skill in a classroom setting, but when it comes to going back to school, you’ll want to do research before you even step foot on campus.

Financial considerations play a big role in the decision-making process. Since many states have programs that offset the cost of higher education for older adults, a return trip to college can actually be less financially stressful than the original cash-strapped experience of many young undergrads. But the rules governing such programs can differ dramatically from one state to the next, so be sure to read the fine print.

For example, Indiana offers a 50-percent tuition discount at state schools for residents aged 65 and older. That perk helps David Young fund his efforts to achieve a doctoral degree in wellness and gerontology. After teaching U.S. history at the high school level for 33 years in Highland, Indiana, and then serving for six years as president of the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA), Young now happily holds the more humble title of graduate assistant at Ball State’s Fisher Institute for Wellness and Gerontology.

New Jersey offers an even better deal: Starting at age 62, residents like Marvin Schuck, who worked as a learning therapist in Willingboro, New Jersey for 31 years, can audit courses for free at prestigious state schools like Rutgers University. But that’s only for senior citizens who are not seeking credit. Schuck has been sitting in on psychology courses for free at Rutgers, but if he wanted to pursue a psychology degree, he would have to pony up tuition cash.

Some states like Alabama will only waive tuition through its “Senior Adult Scholarships” program, which is designed for students aged 60 or older who take courses for college credit. That’s why Sherilyn Osborne, who taught secondary language arts and French in Blount County for 20 years, will likely end up receiving an associate’s degree in horticulture from Wallace State Community College.

Osborne didn’t set out specifically to earn an associate’s degree. A Certified Master Gardener, Osborne enjoys the social aspect of learning horticulture with a group of her gardening friends—many of whom are also retired teachers. She and her fellow Master Gardeners often volunteer their services to beautify and maintain landscaping around Blount and neighboring counties. Osborne takes her horticulture courses for credits, primarily to satisfy the requirements of Alabama’s tuition waiver program.

Some states like Pennsylvania are even more generous.  This is where retired high school choral music teacher Nora Burridge has been taking classes at her local Penn State campus every semester since she turned 60 years old. Under the state’s “GO-60” program, retirees aged 60 and over pay only nominal fees to enroll in courses at state schools, whether they audit or take the courses for credit.

Paying students may also get first dibs on course registration, and if the course is particularly popular, senior citizens might get shut out unless they’re willing to pay the full fee. But none of this should discourage you from going back to school.

If you’re not sure where to begin, you can always just type the name of your state and “senior education” into an Internet search engine like Google. Other good places to start include state departments of education and the university relations or outreach departments of your local university or college. Also, don’t overlook community colleges and vocational schools, some of which may participate in tuition-free programs and/or offer low-cost courses to all students.

Lesson 2: Have a clear idea on your goals

When it comes to going back to school, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. One person might return to college for the sheer bliss of the experience. Another person might want to garner the skills, experience, and credentials to pursue a second career. Both motivations are equally valid, but each requires different levels of commitment and resources.

Nora Burridge simply enjoys lifelong learning and went back to school to learn about all the things she never had a chance to study the first time around—courses like World Music that weren’t even being taught when she graduated from Penn State in 1967. A class she took in Western Art History that covered Islamic art gave her a new appreciation for the mosques and palaces that she visited on a recent visit to Spain.

Since Burridge is auditing her courses on a tuition-free basis, she has lots of time to pursue her outside interests—theater, concerts, two book clubs, plus volunteer work with the Delaware County Literacy Council and the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association. And since she’s not taking the courses for credit, Burridge only takes the tests if she’s in the mood to do so. “It’s just a joy to be in the course—even if all I do is sit in the lectures and do all the readings,” she says.

On the other hand, when Joel Short went back to school after 27 years of teaching Speech and Theatre at the high school level in Belton, Missouri, he went with the explicit intention of laying the groundwork for a second career in healthcare.

Enrolling at one of the largest community colleges in the country, Short ultimately decided to aim for an associate’s degree as a Registered Nurse, with hopes of taking the NCLEX nursing certification test in the spring of 2011. “I’ll be 56 years old then and figure that I will still have a good 12 to 15 years to give to the profession,” says Short.

Short’s primary motivation is his desire to continue serving the public, but in a different way than he did as an educator. Even as he goes to school, he works part-time as a Certified Nurses Aide for a long-term care facility run by the Good Samaritan Society in Olathe, Kansas. But he doesn’t discount the benefit of having another source of income. “I hope that my nursing career will enable my wife and I to have a little easier retirement,” he says.

Then there are the students who go back to obtain a degree for personal satisfaction and accomplishment. David Young, on track to obtain his doctorate in wellness and gerontology, would fall into this category. So would Nancy Campbell, Ed.D., who didn’t have to go back to school to advance her career or strengthen her job security.

Retired from a 30-year teaching and counseling career in Cecil County, Maryland, she took a job with Delaware Technical and Community College (DTCC) to develop a statewide curriculum model for guidance counseling, and she currently serves as Chair of DTCC Owens Campus Education Department.

You might think that Campbell had plenty on her plate without going back to school, but she decided to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of Delaware—even while performing her duties at DTCC. One of Campbell’s fellow administrators explicitly told her that DTCC would support her if she wanted to get the doctoral degree, but that getting an advanced degree was certainly not mandatory.

“There was no push from the college,” explains Campbell. “I have always just loved being a student. And besides, how can I work with students and advise them to constantly be learning if I am not learning, too?”

In March 2008, Dr. Campbell successfully defended her doctorate dissertation on how to address the critical need for science teachers in the state of Delaware. She is proud of what she has accomplished as a student on a very personal level.

Lesson 3: Teachers are peers now

Any fears about being accepted as a student quickly evaporate once retired teachers step on campus. Nora Burridge, who often finds herself the only older student in a class full of undergraduates, says that her younger fellow students are always friendly and polite. Marvin Schuck finds the younger students respectful, smiling, and even opening doors for him outside of class.

On the other hand, Schuck says that retired teachers who return to school shouldn’t expect to become best pals with the younger classmates. “They’re respectful, but they tend to keep their distance,” he explains. “If there’s an empty seat between you and the rest of the class, they’re not likely to fill that space.”

Obviously the situation may be different for students like Short, Young, and Campbell. Doctorate programs often have older students, and the healthcare industry attracts a fair share of seasoned professionals looking to change careers.

In any case, our sources report enjoying friendlier, closer relationships with professors than the ones they remember from their undergrad years. “The professors at Ball State treat all their graduate students as colleagues in training,” shares Young.

“I’ve enjoyed interacting with my teachers as one professor to another,” agrees Short, who discovered that he had taught the brother and sister of one of his professors back in the early 1980s. “We can commiserate when a particular lesson hasn’t gone well. Or if something really works, I might say, ‘Yeah, that technique is a good one. I used to use it when I was teaching.’”

Nora Burridge says she introduces herself at the start of each class to her professors, explaining just how excited she is to be in the class and noting that she doesn’t want to interfere with their interaction with the undergraduate students. “Each professor has told me that it is a delight to have me in the class,” she says. “They tell me that sometimes when no one else in the class knows something, it’s nice to have my experience.”

Lesson 4: Challenges are manageable, rewards are immeasurable

Admission procedures, reading assignments, class presentations, term papers, and tests—retired teachers who return to school may have to tackle all of these and more.

But you’ve done it all before, and you can do it all again. The biggest obstacles to re-experiencing the joy of being a college student are probably inertia, fear of the unknown, or the worry that getting another degree or developing expertise in some subject will take too much time. 

In response to such concerns, Nancy Campbell offers a quotation from motivational speaker Earl Nightingale: “Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use.”

All of the retired educators we spoke with gained something special from being students again. Some of them gained friends or valuable skills for helping their communities. Some of them gained knowledge that illuminated the world in a new way. And some of them secured entirely new careers. Several of them reported that the process of learning helped them keep their brains sharp and active.

And for at least one of them, the years sometimes fell away leaving a sense of vigor and exhilaration familiar to any young student. “For me, the most exciting part of being a student again is that there are times I forget that I am 66 years old,” says Schuck. “It happens when I hear or read about some exciting theory that I had never thought of before. That’s a nice feeling to have.”

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