Seniors Are Going Back to School

Kids go to school. College students go to school. Graduate school students go to school if it is necessary for the profession they have chosen. They do if it will prepare them professionally to enter the world of work. Or to pursue interests in more depth. Do retired people go to school? Yes, even though this seems to be disrupting the status quo. Their working days may be over and there may be no need to be educated for a career or earn a degree, they’re not necessarily done learning.

Retired people in Maine have an opportunity to go back to school in any one of the 17 senior colleges that make up the Maine Senior College Network. The MSCN can be traced back to a movement in New York City in 1962. According to a report prepared by Anne Cardale, the program coordinator of the MSCN, a group of retired public school teachers got together with the New School University to create the Institute for Retired Professionals, a lifelong learning institute. The New School’s website reports that there are now more than 500 campuses around the country actively promoting lifelong learning based on the IRP.

Maine’s first lifelong learning institute, established in 1996 at the University of Southern Maine, opted to use the generic term “senior college.” In 1999 the Maine state legislature appropriated funding for USM to “support a senior college initiative statewide.” Following this appropriation a network grew up. Now there are 17 senior colleges across the state. Maine is now the only state in the nation with a network of senior colleges. Two of these are in Aroostook County. SAGE, one of the oldest, is here at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. The St. John Valley Senior College in Fort Kent is the newest member of the network.

The mission of each senior college is to provide intellectually stimulating learning opportunities for people over the age of 50. These opportunities are provided in a peer-led program. Each college has a board of directors or its equivalent. Each plans and carries out its own curriculum. The administration, the classes taught, the services provided by the host campus, the membership fees are unique to each campus. Only the office on the campus of the University of Southern Maine unites them. The office serves a coordinating role. It acts as a clearinghouse for ideas and distributes information statewide through its regular newsletter. It unites the colleges with an “Ask MSCN” feature for sharing problems and ideas. It is currently exploring the idea of an online course available to all members statewide.

SAGE is one of the smaller branches with approximately 100 members. The largest is at the University of Southern Maine with over 1,700 members. There are approximately 6,500 members overall.

In choosing classes, members may want to be informed or entertained. They may want to find a new passion or to fill in a knowledge gap. Subjects may be informative as in “Presque Isle and the Civil War” or “The History of Astronomy” or as entertaining as “A Day at the Movies” or “Between the Sheets” (a study of textiles!). A class may be practical as in “Simple Plumbing and Heating” or almost silly-sounding as in “Coloring for Everyone.” Take one class or 100.

Students in high school or college look forward to graduating. Students in senior colleges have different goals. All are retired or are close to retiring. They are not looking for a career or a diploma. Susanne Sandusky is a retired administrator and SAGE board member. She said she wanted “something to challenge me (a little bit) and get me out of the house. What I found was not only that but so much more. I’ve delved into literary classics, our Constitution and opera–not to mention water aerobics and coloring for adults.”

SAGE member Theresa Lown said, “I have enrolled in SAGE because now that I am older I have the time, means and inclination to do just as I please. I love indulging myself in classes that just interest me whether I’ll ever use the info or not. And I love being around people who are enjoying themselves just as much as I am.”

Another member, Mary Godfrey, loves the fact that she does not have to worry about a grade. There are no tests. She does not have to retain the details.

Judy Burleigh, a retired educator, said that she has read that to keep our brain active we need stimulating experiences. New activities may help ward off memory problems.

“I love being once again in a university environment among the wonderful young people we come in contact with who are polite, informative and gracious to us,” Natalie Foster, a retired pharmacologist, commented.

Lincoln Ladd teaches “William Faulkner” classes at the University of Maine at Augusta Senior College. He noted that he is free to teach courses that he wants to teach, not classes that are the product of faculty committees. His students often suggest portions of the class to teach–topics to explore and discussed, books to read, guest speakers.

Not all adults of the same age group are SAGE members. Some people are intimidated by having the classes on a university campus. Others are busy with volunteer activities. Some would rather play bingo or knit. There are those who are physically unable to attend. One activity does not suit all seniors. But for those who are intellectually curious and who want to meet and share their interest with others, there is a senior college in Maine somewhere nearby.