Back to the Classroom
Older students take to the classroom for refreshing learning experiences
By Christine Green
Bobbie Dumas Panek has held many titles including radiologic technologist, newspaper columnist, lifeguard and mother.
But the one she embraced anew at age 56 was “student.”
After putting four kids through school, it was finally her turn to get the college degree she always wanted but never quite found the time for. She enrolled at SUNY Empire College and graduated with her degree in creative writing in 2010.
Tess Padmore earned her Master of Business Administration degree in 1981 but that wasn’t the end of her education by a long shot. In the early 2000s, she began coursework toward her doctorate in education until health problems forced her to slow down. But slowing down is not the same as stopping and today the 64-year-old continues to take college-level courses at Monroe Community College and Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Rochester Institute of Technology. For her, “going into classroom is like going home,” she said.
Panek and Padmore are not alone is their pursuit of learning after age 50 as more adults in their older years either work toward degrees or take college courses to simply enhance their knowledge and indulge their curiosity.
What motivates baby boomers to return to school when they are either retired or at the peak of their careers?
Dana Brown, academic adviser at SUNY Empire State College, said some older students, like Panek, return because their studies were interrupted in their younger years. Panek trained as a radiologic technologist but never got a bachelor’s degree. Marriage, work, and family took precedence for many years and when the kids became adults, she found that she was ready to focus more on herself and her own needs.
Brown said others go back to school to learn more about their current career or because an employer has suggested or required it in order to stay up with the latest research or technology.
Panek had a blast when she returned to college and found the experience much more fulfilling than when she took college courses at ages 18 and 19 when she just wanted to get classes over and done with.
As an adult, she was able to appreciate the learning process with a whole new perspective and found being a student more fulfilling. Adult learning wasn’t just a means to an end — it was, “something I was truly going after for myself,” she said.
Maria Brandt, a creative writing professor at Monroe Community College, said older students bring something special to her classes. She noted older students tend to be more open and honest when it comes to class participation and they are, in general, “very vulnerable in ways that younger students who just haven’t gained that life experience struggle with.”
Enhances classroom experience
This vulnerability and honesty influence the younger students, making for a much richer classroom experience for everyone.
“I love when I have a senior auditor because it does tend to open up the whole class,” she said.
Much of this honesty and excitement about learning comes from the maturity and wisdom that comes with age. “So many life experiences are brought to the table,” said Brown, who went on to say that these life experiences give students a greater depth of understanding that ultimately helps them in their studies.
Anyone interested in taking college classes can look into the auditing programs offered by many local universities. Auditors can sit in on classes without having to complete assignments and they do not earn a grade. It is a great way to participate in learning without the pressure of homework and testing.
Many local schools such as Monroe Community College and The College at Brockport offer special auditing programs for students over 60, making it that much easier for older students to return to the classroom.
For those seeking college credit or looking to earn a degree, traditional university enrollment may be the way to go. A great option for older students is attendance at a school that offers part-time attendance or distance learning opportunities. Students at SUNY Empire, for example, can take courses online or at various locations across the state. This type of learning environment is ideal for those who are working full or part time or who want more scheduling flexibility.
SUNY Empire helped Panek create a degree program suited to her individual needs. She and her mentor were able to customize a schedule that included online as well as on-site classes.
Rochester is also home to learning centers especially designed for the older student. RIT’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is a membership organization that offers academic classes and social programs to adult learners over 50. Courses at Osher are widely varied and include everything from creative writing and history courses to film and music classes.
Returning to school can be life -changing for an older student. Both Panek and Padmore’s time in the classroom gave them the skill and motivation to take their personal writing to new levels. Panak has since published two books and Padmore has five books in the works for future publication.
“It was a really big deal to me and still is. I encourage everyone to go back,” said Panek.