Once while in her 20s, Victoria Lichterman got two job offers within a week. One was full-time assistant professor status at Brooklyn College, where she then taught speech and theater. The other was a principal part in a television soap.
Being young, she turned down Brooklyn’s offer and, for just a matter of months before a change in producers, portrayed Dorothy Royce in Search for Tomorrow. “I’ve done a lot of acting in my life, a lot of acting, so trying to remember what this character did is not right on the top of my head. But I know that she ran a personnel office and, through that office, ruined people’s lives,” says Lichterman -- who, of late, and much later in her own life, at last returned to academe.
“If someone had told me that I was going to start on a tenure track when I was 62, I would have laughed,” she says.
“But now I’m 68 and indeed, it’s been there, done that.”
Lichterman, an assistant professor of humanities, received tenure at New York City College of Technology this year, having signed on as a full-time junior faculty member six years ago at age 62 after a couple years as a part timer. “She’s just one of us, who came to tenure late in life,” says Cathy Santore, chair of the humanities department at City Tech, which is part of the City University of New York. “She’s worked extremely hard and with so much energy, I worried about her because I thought she’s just knocking herself out. She wants to keep up with the younger faculty but she went beyond what some of them are doing.”
“Actually," Santore says, "she’s teaching me about age. When I said to her, ‘Victoria, you don’t have to work so hard,’ she said, ‘Oh, when you get to my age, you’ll see….You’ll just be so delighted that you can still do it that you’d like to do it.”
Lichterman, originally of Ohio, holds a master of fine arts degree in acting from the Yale School of Drama. She counts nearly 100 roles in television, theater and film to her credit, though talking about details of characters past strikes her as uninteresting. “There’s nothing sadder than old credits,” she says in trying to summarize a "checkered career" that spanned fiction and screen writing, acting, corporate training, and teaching. (And not always under one name. While home with her then-young daughter, she says she sold a piece of fiction to Redbook under the name “Victoria Robinson.” She acted under her maiden name, “Victoria Rauch.”)
Through it all, theater, she says, "weaves itself in and out of my life -- appearing in a show and then doing something else and then appearing in something else. I know I’m not being very clear, but my life hasn’t been.”
She is in what she expects to be just the beginning of her days at City Tech. She teaches voice and diction and acting, but most enjoys teaching “effective speaking,” encouraging students to speak on practical matters like, “How do you read a contract? How do you know what you’re paying when you’re paying your credit card bill?” At last year’s Eastern Communication Association Conference, she presented both on “Addressing Intercultural Communication When ‘Difference’ is the Norm: Group Discussion Techniques for a Highly Diverse Student Population” and led, for the second time, a workshop on “Communication Skills for Teachers for Whom English is a Second Language.”
“We really have an incredibly diverse student population," she says of City Tech. "Dozens of languages are the first languages at our school and we also have incredible diversity in our faculty population. One of the things that I’ve been trying to promote is better communication practices in the classroom between faculty and students."
“There are so many simple things that are just good communication practices. Let’s suppose a student asks a question. If that question is asked with an accent, and the teacher, also with an accent, only answers that question to the student who asked it instead of repeating it clearly to the rest of the room and then answering it clearly, there’s a whole part of the lesson that’s lost. And this happens all the time."
Lichterman is also developing a script as an educational tool to help students learn about genocide, and has done research on the history of white writers speaking through black characters. (That latter project evolved out of an unlikely beginning: a grant proposal for a screenplay about 1940s radio.)
In preparing presentations on her research, Lichterman – who says with a laugh that she didn’t know how to use a computer when she came to City Tech at the turn of this century -- also had to relearn basic citation practices, which changed since she learned them. "At that age, you're reeducating yourself it felt like just about every year."
Well-aware of the old actor's adage that few good parts are written for women over 50, Lichterman more generally says she objects to what she describes as "the real dismissal of the elderly in this society. You begin to see this the minute you get white hair." Salespeople, for instance, address her differently: “The tone is 'Hi',” the actress in Lichterman says, pitching her voice up perfectly, “may I help you?” Yet, she notes in contrast to much of the rest of the world that at City Tech, her age has been a non-issue. Of course, other faculty there are of a similar age, but at different stages in their careers – either adjuncts or full timers who achieved tenure 30 years ago or more.
“There’s a definite philosophy in our society that after you’ve reached a certain age, it’s time to give up. And that’s very dangerous because first of all people are living much longer. And to look forward to 25 years of retirement is more years than I want,” says Lichterman. She plans to work as long as she feels she can do her job well and doesn't foresee retiring anytime soon.
“I think that what’s so wonderful about having a career at this late stage is that you’re in the beginnings and not endings.”