Back to school: It’s never too late to learn

Alicia Colombo

By Jay Nachman


Every day, a 100-year-old student would take classes at Temple University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), among them “Buddhism and Meditation,” “History of the Supreme Court,” “Deciphering the Middle East and North Africa,” and “Introduction to Tai Chi.”

Rain or shine, it didn’t matter. He would show up at Temple’s Center City campus ready to learn.

Nicole Westrick, an associate vice provost for University College at Temple University, gave three primary reasons why older adults return to school.

There are many reasons why older adults want to take advantage of the educational opportunities that a university, like Temple, provides. They want to explore subjects of interest. Maybe they want to learn a new skill. In some cases, they just want to be part of an educational community.

“Each student is unique and different,” Westrick said.

OLLI members range in age from the mid-50s to the 90s. “There’s a pretty big population of longtime members in their 80s and 90s,” Westrick said.

One benefit older adults bring to the classroom is experience. “If we’re talking, for example, about the Civil Rights Movement, some of the [students] marched during the movement,” she said. “They have lived experience. Instead of just watching a news clip or hearing a second-hand story, they’re in that class sharing that lived experience with students who are several generations younger. That’s super rewarding. We’re learning in a community from one another.”

Debbie Fleischman, a public relations professional in Center City who turns 65 this month, has taken about 40 classes as part of Temple’s Senior Scholars program for alumni and other students 50-plus. She has taken classes ranging from history to anthropology to philosophy to political science.

“I’ve tried to not take things that I did take in college but more things I kind of missed when I was going through college,” Fleischman said. “It’s all about what I want from the class, and I just love it. The reward is the personal fulfillment of learning things. I’m sort of the ultimate lifetime learner,” she said.

Andre Godwin, 63, of North Philadelphia, recently completed his first semester at Philadelphia Community College. He is in recovery and the help from counselors he received over the years sparked his interest in studying the field.

He took classes in English, math, behavioral health and human services.

“I enjoyed going back to school and learning new stuff, learning new vocabulary and picking up some extra math,” Godwin said. “My going back to school was very interesting. I was very motivated, but I didn’t realize how tough it would be.”

Challenges of going back to school later in life include fast-paced learning and navigating the technology of online courses. The latter was challenging for Goodwin since he isn’t computer savvy. To his good fortune, Goodwin was awarded an Octavius Catto Scholarship, which provided tuition and academic support.

“School keeps your mind fresh and keeps you active,” he said. “You’ve got to use your mind to keep it strong.”

Approximately 900 students enroll each year in the Philadelphia School District’s Educational Options Program, which allows adults to earn credits toward a high school diploma.

While the average age of a returning student is 27, there are about 30 older adult students (50-plus) each year, according to Cameo John, assistant director of the program.

Students return for many reasons. The night school offers students the flexibility to take classes after work and provides a better work/life balance. Some need the degree for a promotion or job opportunity.

“It’s almost like a hunger for those students who are returning because they desire it now,” John said. “Those students are eager. They want to learn. And even though they may have challenges, they’re not afraid to ask for help or to struggle.”

John acknowledges that going back to school is difficult and advises her students, “Don’t give up. There are going to be challenging moments. But the main thing is to stick with it.”

Dietra Stroman dropped out of high school when she got pregnant with her first child. Recently, at age 75, she graduated through the Educational Options Program. Her high school diploma, framed by her brother, now hangs on the wall of her Mount Airy home where she proudly views it every day.

When Stroman passed her final test, she began crying tears of joy. “It was a long struggle,” Stroman said. “When I was raising my children, I felt bad. I was pushing them to finish school because I didn’t.”

Beyond credited formal education programs, there are also many programs for personal enrichment. Westrick, the Temple associate vice provost advised, “Whether it’s at Temple University or any other university, there are lots of lifelong learning programs available. There are lots of ways to engage in lifelong learning, and local universities are a great place to start and explore.”


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Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.

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