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Essay on making campuses welcoming for older people

Tips for a Brighter Campus
February 24, 2012

What I learned about kinder campuses from my mom.

A colleague recently retired from a full-time campus position is using every hour of free time now to teach. A sideline for him for many years, teaching is now his main contact with academia. I heard from a third party that he is enjoying one class in particular -- with four people over age 60 enrolled in it.

That supported a memory I began to savor this past Christmas, that lonely day when one particularly misses loved ones who have died. In my case, it’s my mom, Louise Shine, who died at 94 this past September.  

Are there ways to kindle a kinder campus for elders in your midst -- and, by extension, for all? Perhaps there are.

How my mom became a Project 60 student at Cleveland State University was a fluke. It’s now known as Program 60, and perhaps your campus has an effort in which men and women of a certain age can attend classes free of charge. I was a transfer student to CSU, having begun studies at a small liberal arts college and a community college following my dad’s death. One summer, I was working as a residential camp counselor for first graders from the inner city when an erroneous overdue notice of more than $100 in fines for a tower of returned books arrived at home from the campus library. With her lifetime of living on a budget, bookkeeping acumen and unwavering belief in my responsible return of books, my mom decided to rectify the error on my behalf immediately.

Tips for a Brighter Campus
 

  • The right to learn is a joy.
  • Respect others' opinions.
  • Hospitality outside the classroom is memorable.
  • Don't wait till commencement or fundraising time to give a nod to parents or grandparents.
  • Read cover to cover: You can.
  • It is never too late to learn.
  • Note models for learning in your life.
  • Elders can be as enthusiastic -- or moreso -- than traditional students.
  • Colleges might more deliberately consider the elders in their midst -- or in adjoining neighborhooods -- when campus planning.

A non-driver, she took the bus to the campus library to go to the shelves and verify that each and every book had, in fact, been returned. And as she roamed, inspiration struck. She decided to enroll at CSU. She calculated that she could take 8:30-9:35 a.m. classes -- thus leaving her home around 7:15 a.m. by bus, going to campus and catching a loop bus downtown to start work at 10 a.m. at what was then the May Company department store, where she worked in sales in the infants and toddlers’ department. She worked till 6 p.m., often closing out the register, and was home by 7:30, again by bus. She was on her feet all day, but before and after work -- and during lunch hour -- her studies ruled.

My mom would share with me what she had experienced in her classes. She loved to learn and took whatever her heart desired. She did all the required work -- and more -- though technically she was auditing. “Mom, you don’t have to work so hard,” I’d say, as she’d speed through the syllabus, reading late into the night.

Our schedules rarely crossed, even when I later worked full-time at the university -- but I always enjoyed hearing about her professors, such as the one with a particularly acute sense of humor. I nostri professori sono mal pagati (our professors are poorly paid) was written on the board at each class or recited in unison.

My mom had told me several times that when debates got heated in another classroom, a very popular professor would say to one or the other student, “That’s how you see it.” This became our mantra, and how rare that simple acknowledgment is made in contentious discussions anywhere.

Another professor excelled at literary interpretation, and my mother’s detailed annotations of poems show both his brilliance and her love of the poems.

Another faculty member had a working farm where he invited students for a full day. My mom hitched a ride with a willing student. This professor offered one of those experiences sometimes absent at a commuter school: a brief retreat, in every sense. “And his wife made these muffins with everything in them -- walnuts, raisins, berries, everything,” my mom told me. Kindness.

My mom told me about a day that someone in one of her classes had a seizure. Students sprung into action to offer support even as EMS was called. As my mom’s older sister had severe epilepsy, this incident deeply resonated with her.

Her fellow students in her classes accepted her. There was no pretending she was invisible, no undercurrent of, “What’s this older lady with an accent doing here?” This is not always the case.

“I would like her to be a tutor for the students,” a professor of English as a Second Language said to me, once she knew who my mom was. “Maybe you can help me convince her.”

A professor of gerontology, when he figured out who my mom was, said, “She’s your mom?! What a great lady!”

She took courses in psychology, and her notes on post-traumatic stress disorder reflect a common interest we had, as my dad was a Holocaust survivor and my mom survived traumatic experiences of her own, as I only learned very late in her life.

Born in Germany before the end of World War I, she was a bright student even in grade school, she reported, but often weighted down with family chores. “You could do better,” some of her teachers told her, even as another -- her favorite -- saw how she grasped more abstract scientific and mathematical concepts. The lessons of her early years did not fade; she was reciting information from some classes completed in her youth and singing folk songs and reading entries in the encyclopedia -- despite low vision and other health concerns -- until the week before she died. Not all are so blessed with a loved one’s lucidity as their parents age, but I was; in fact, my mom’s nickname was Lucy, a variation of Louise.

My mom made time to read no matter how tired she was. She was reading Thoreau the night before a craniotomy at age 81, and I will always remember that image of her staying calm, packing a small suitcase and reading. She came through that surgery defying many expectations, and I saw her often in the weeks of recovery. Passionate learning can keep us -- and our campuses -- vibrant as we age.

“I like to be among young people. It helps me to feel young,” was my mom’s response to those who suggested she volunteer among the elderly. It was only after my son was born that my mom, by then retired, decided to suspend her studies at CSU. She greeted my son with a bowl of rice cereal (even if he had already eaten) and a melody she made up on the piano whenever we arrived. My son had a trace of a German accent when he began to talk. His gentleness, congeniality, tireless curiosity,  passion for classical music -- in all these traits I see my mom. They were kindred spirits, over seven decades apart in age. She died as he began his freshman year at Kenyon College.

I sometimes reflect on residents of neighborhoods adjacent to the campuses where I teach who are decades older and millennia wiser than even the brightest recruited freshmen (and some senior faculty, for that matter) but never set foot on campus. One such friend talked about how a new campus building blocked her view of the sunset, in the home she had owned for half a century.

Universities might work harder not to block out light. Campuses might consistently invite nontraditional learners in mutually enriching activities. What are we missing by leaving them out? I wonder.

Bio

Maria Shine Stewart teaches writing on three campuses and works as a contributing editor/writer for a northeast Ohio business publication. This is part of a column, A Kinder Campus, that explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility, and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact mariashinestewart@gmail.com.

 

 

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