BLOOMSBURG — Local retirees are back in school, sitting next to undergraduates in classes they never took but wished they had.
Bloomsburg University has a small army of loyal “Silver Huskies,” some taking a new course every semester.
Free from degree requirements, these students can follow their interests. This might mean history or geology one semester, medieval art or literature the next. The only limitation is that there must be room in the class. Pennsylvania universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), like Bloomsburg, offer tuition waivers for Pennsylvania residents over 60. Another option for students of any age is to simply sit in, for a $25 fee and permission of the instructor.
Dom Conca, former radiologist and system chair of radiology at Geisinger, retired in 2009.
“I knew I didn’t want to sit at home,” he said. “I didn’t have room for many electives in college, but I always had a desire to learn about geology.”
His first course at Bloomsburg University was basic oceanography.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “That led to courses in plate tectonics and geomorphology, and then I really got into it.”
Now after 10 years on campus, he has done enough for a whole geology major and more. On road trips, he’s always spotting interesting rock formations to point out.
Conca’s most challenging geology course was astrogeology, with Michael Shepard. The summer before the course, he read the 400-page textbook on his own to get ready. Besides geology, he has ventured into courses on terrorism, Muslim history, and cryptology.
“Cryptology was fascinating,” he said, “but it required a lot of advanced math.”
Students who choose the non-degree option with tuition waiver are fully enrolled in the course and must complete all assignments and tests, and they get a grade. While tuition is free, they must pay fees, which amount to $430.50 per course. These students are actually admitted to BU and get a student ID, parking permit and full access to everything on campus.
The sit-in option, which Conca has chosen, is just $25 per semester. Assignments and exams are optional, and no grades are given, but Conca said he completes everything.
“You gotta roll up your sleeves and do the work,” he said, “if you’re going to take a course.”
Another loyal back-to-school retiree is Sandy Latour of Bloomsburg. After a long nursing career, she is at Bloomsburg to “take courses just for fun, things I hadn’t been able to take in my nursing program.”
Her new undergraduate career was launched by an article she read in the Bloomsburg University Magazine about Marion Mason, a psychology professor with an interest in gerontology. She contacted Mason for permission and took her first course, a large psychology lecture with 200 students.
Mason was starting an over-60s program at the university to get older students to campus, and Latour got involved. Now called the “Silver Huskies,” the group is made up of community people who want to improve communication between the campus and the town. Dan Knorr, director of external government relations, who works in the president’s office, is the coordinator of these efforts for the university.
“Too many people in this area are intimidated,” said Latour. “They don’t see the university as a friendly place. They worry too much about the little things, like parking, and stay away.”
“We want more people to know about what’s available here and how it works.”
Knorr and the “Silver Huskies” have held two public meetings on campus to welcome older local residents. More than 100 attended the most recent meeting, and another session is planned for March 31 on campus, at Monty’s, starting at 9 a.m. The hourlong program will explain about how to get started, how to sign up for courses, where to park, how to get library privileges (free for all Pa. residents), and how to get help with questions. This will be followed by a combined bus and walking tour of lower and upper campus. Knorr’s office also does a monthly email newsletter called “On the Hill” with information of interest.
Latour has been amazed in her eight years of taking classes how many students are glad to have older students in their classes.
“It doesn’t matter your age,” she said. “The connectivity is what’s important.”
She makes friends with the undergraduates and they help each other. One young man approached her on campus the semester after they had a class together to ask if he could talk to her about his academic difficulties. She was pleased he was so comfortable with her.
Deborah Walberg, art history professor at Bloomsburg University, has had a number of older students in her classes, and she sees a good interaction between younger and older students, especially in the smaller seminars.
“Older students have life experience to add,” she said. “That enriches their understanding of what they experience in class and it helps everyone.”
She finds that, on the whole, older students are better prepared, especially when it comes to analytical skills.
“They have received a far better education than the current generation,” she feels, “and they have used their skills in the workplace."
Most of all, said Walberg, “they are there because they want to be.”
“Kids will ask me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ as we’re climbing up a steep cliff on a geology field trip. They are amazed when I say that I’m doing it just because I want to.”
Bucknell University also opens its doors to community members. They admit non-degree students to their classes, but at full tuition. They also offer an auditing option for $150 per course, subject to space available and the professor’s permission. In addition, they sponsor an Institute for Lifetime Learning specifically aimed at seniors, offering shorter courses of 3-6 sessions at a cost of $35 to $50 plus a yearly membership fee.
Both Conca and Latour prefer the experience of sitting in a regular classroom with undergraduates for a full semester.
“I like the energy of being with the students,” said Latour.
She is currently taking a literature and society course that focuses on marriage and divorce. Favorite past courses have included Muslim history, philosophy, literature of war, Spanish, psychology and math thinking.
She was surprised at how much she loved math thinking, considering that she has always feared math. She likes the challenge of trying something totally new, and she is not alone.
“I have a friend who is 78 who is taking a biology class this semester with a lab. She loves it.”
“When you retire, you have to look at other things in your life,” said Conca. "My kids and grandkids are widely spread, and I don’t see them much. It’s good to see how different generations see things. These 10 1/2 years at Bloomsburg University have been the best.”
Mary Bernath is an associate professor of English at Bloomsburg University.