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Academic freedom

With no children to raise and no boss to appease, retirees are returning to the nation's colleges and universities.

By Robert N. Jenkins, LifeTimes Editor
Published August 28, 2007


TAMPA - Cranberry polo shirt drawn smooth across his barrel chest and hanging outside his black slacks, Walter Clarke doesn't stand out from any other lecturer at the front of a University of South Florida classroom. Nothing about him says career diplomat. - But Clarke tells this class of 15 that he spent 36 years and three months in the U.S. State Department, at embassies in Europe and Africa. He has lectured at military colleges where officers learn how to wage both war and peace, was a consultant at roughly 100 military exercises and was sent to Afghanistan and Iraq. - So on this July morning, he takes it in stride when a student challenges the very reason for offering this six-class series, "Cooperation vs. Confrontation: Civilian-Military Relations."

Clarke is barely halfway through the 90-minute class, offered to people 50 and older, when a man raises his hand, says he was a former assistant secretary of the Air Force and asks:

"Why should we be studying about civilian government response when the military has been developed to be lethal?"

Clarke is content to preside over the ensuing back-and-forth between the students rather than to lecture.

These students are part of the surge of older adults heading to colleges, not so much for a degree as for the joy of learning.

In 2003, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 633,700 people at least 50 years old were enrolled in degree-granting colleges, 80 percent of them part-time students.

Clarke's class is conducted by USF's Continuing Education office under the auspices of the Bernard Osher Foundation. That philanthropy is the funding arm of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, OLLI for short.

OLLI is one of three major national groups, with some overlap, that bring older adults back into the classroom. About 300 universities and colleges are affiliated with or sponsoring the Institute for Learning in Retirement ILR and the smaller Lifelong Learning Institute.

An example of an ILR program is Oak Hammock at the University of Florida Gainesville. This is a residential and continuing-care facility on a separate 136-acre campus aligned with the university, whose president, Bernie Machen, sits on Oak Hammock's board of directors. (See related story, Page 15L).

A lot or a little

Perhaps because their years have allowed them to know so much more, the Osher students who decide the curriculum seem to want to learn everything.

Classes might meet one time or six, from one to two hours, with topics literally from A to Z. Courses at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg this year have included the Korean tea ceremony, eBay, Shakespeare on love, Oliver Stone's America and ancient Greek literature.

There are also travel sessions, from day trips to a two-week tour of Greece, led by the instructor for the six-hour Greek literature course.

It's that range of offerings that appeal to older students Millie Bernstein and Audre Zieres, both of whom attend OLLI courses at Eckerd.

Bernstein, retired as a clinical psychologist on Long Island, was serenaded for her 91st birthday this May by fellow students in one of the classes.

"When they started tai chi classes about five or six years ago, I came for that," she said. Now, in addition to taking classes on music and biographies, she is one of more than 170 volunteers at Eckerd.

"I practically live here."

Joining her as student and volunteer is Zieres, 82, who earned a chemical engineering degree from Iowa State and is now retired.

She makes time to take "three or four sessions each semester. I love all the music courses and early literature. I can't give it enough credit - it keeps me interested in the world."

That was the intent of Bernard Osher, 77, who made a fortune estimated by Forbes at $1.1-billion in banking and investments. Inspired by a University of San Francisco educational program for retirees, Osher endowed a foundation in March 2001 to underwrite similar curricula for older adults across the country.

OLLI classes now are held on 101 campuses in 48 states and the District of Columbia. An estimated 40,000 people are enrolled, including about 1,100 at USF and about 700 at Eckerd College.

James E. Frasier, Eckerd's Director of Continuing Education, sums up the attraction of OLLI and two other continuing-education programs he oversees:

"It is about intellectual stimulation, however defined. . . . Some people fall into a void when they retire: The reason to get up in the morning isn't there."

But by returning to the classroom, he says, people realize personal goals and become "a rich, rich resource for the community. A whole new head of steam is being built up."

Expanding horizons

Attending courses - about Africa, yoga or the reporting of the Civil War - "is something I need to do," says Lee Radford, 73, a retired accounting supervisor from Utica, N.Y., who is taking Walter Clarke's "Cooperation vs. Confrontation" class at USF.

"I want to keep my mind active as well as my body," she adds. "I'm not one to sit at home and watch TV."

Nor is Richard Brooks, 63, who has worked all sides of the adult-learner equation: As a volunteer helping with the USF program, he has taken about 10 courses, from history to art, science to religion. And the retired TECO production supervisor has also taught twice.

Although he has a bachelor of science degree in chemistry, the topic of his eight-hour classes was female pirates.

The total enrollment for his classes was about 60, Brooks says, but before the classes started, "I had to explain to people I was not saying female pilots."

Still, Brooks noted, "We don't get a lot of disappointed students. . . . There are lot of retired teachers who do the teaching, but now they can do their pet subjects."

Academic freedom

Kay Cole has moved out of the classroom but stayed active in education.

She used to teach grammar school in the Baltimore area but got involved in marketing when she moved to St. Petersburg. After Cole began volunteering at Eckerd, she was hired to be outreach and marketing associate for continuing education.

To her, the hundreds of people taking part in Eckerd's programs represent the changing, aging face of America.

"The increase in longevity, improved health, plus financial stability are letting older people push their way to do more things," Cole says.

Steve Slon sees that combination of factors as "a golden opportunity to fulfill the dream . . . of what one can do with the second half of one's life.

"You're freed from family responsibilities, job responsibilities. You're free to be the person that you might have been had you not had all those encumbrances in your youth," the editor of AARP the Magazine said this month from his Washington, D.C., office.

"It could be anything from being a frustrated poet to just being a Civil War buff, but you haven't had time to devote to it. . . . And education is a way to make that happen."

Slon could be describing Mel Brown, 66, a retired project manager in Chicago's credit and banking industries. Brown says he takes up to three Osher classes a semester at USF because "my passion is genealogy - and to really understand your own background, you have to look at history."

Brown, who also teaches computer classes, said he enrolled in Clarke's civilian-military course because "we live in a very confusing time. I hope this clarifies it."

In another USF classroom, nearly 30 students are quick to call out answers to questions posed by instructor Joseph R. McAuliffe. He is also USF's coordinator of senior programs in continuing education, but to everyone taking "America Between the Wars," he's just "Joe."

"History and geopolitics are our most popular courses," McAuliffe says in an interview before class. "Our goal is to get them to expand their horizons . . . with a diversified education that challenges their thinking."

Douglas Fairbanks, 67 and retired from sales and marketing in the food service industry, says during a break from McAuliffe's class that he loves history, philosophy and political science.

Fairbanks, a one-time chairman of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, a forum for bipartisan political debate, will lead open-ended philosophy discussions at USF this winter.

The Tampa resident plans to maintain his 10-year routine of taking two or three courses.

"I'm a junkie," he says with a smile. "These classes are humbling as well as enlightening."

Wise investment

There is also a serendipity about being on a college campus, a feeling of nostalgia for simpler days and fewer demands. That's a stage of life many older adults can now appreciate again.

Part of this program is to encourage multigenerational exchanges, but the AARP's Slon sees a bottom line, too:

"I presume that the universities' motive is financial because if they capture these happy former graduates and they're making them feel at home . . . (the retirees) are going to be more likely to will the colleges their money. That's part of it. . . .

"But what better thing can you have than a campus, where . . . you don't even have to drive.

"And a lot of culture comes to a university. There's dance and music and art, and of course . . . the community of the other people taking courses with you, so you're meeting people. A lot of people are rejuvenated by being around younger folks, and they want that."

But it isn't hanging out with undergrads that draws 85-year-old Hillel Hahn to USF. As the retired Navy chief petty officer and teacher said, "I can't drive now, so I need help getting here.

"But I miss it, I miss it a lot. My mind begs for food."

Robert N. Jenkins can be contacted at (727) 893-8496 or bjenkins@sptimes.com.

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Resources and information

Osher Lifelong Learning: www.usm.maine.edu (search "Osher")

Eckerd College: One-year membership is $59; if paid between September and December this year, enrollment is extended through December 2008. There are additional fees for some courses; classes are offered on campus and at five other sites in Pinellas County. www.eckerd.edu/olli

University of South Florida: One-year membership is $30, with additional fees for some courses. An open house to introduce OLLI classes begins at 9:30 a.m. Sept. 7 at the USF Downtown Center, 1101 Channelside Drive; this is one of four teaching sites in the Tampa area. www.usfseniors.org

To read: 501 Ways for Adult Students to Pay for College, by Gen and Kelly Tanabe (Supercollege, 2006; $17.95).

Online courses and financial aid: www.elearners.com