Friday, May 14, 2010

Become a "Senior" Senior

So, for a little diversion from the pattern of my blog, I’m focusing on me today. Today’s post actually fits the subject of surviving retirement, but from another angle. If, like many retirees, being retired is enough to send you running for the “Help Wanted” section of the newspaper, you might consider going back to school instead.

All of my life I felt “less than” those who had completed college. I had the opportunity to attend a Teacher’s College in New Jersey with the help of scholarships, but my mother moved out of the state and I became ineligible. Then, circumstances forced me to have to work. As luck would have it, though, my last full-time employment was at a community college. I started taking classes to improve my skill set. Then, I added a few more and got my associate’s degree. By the time I retired, I had 72 units and decided to apply to the closest California State University at San Marcos to complete my bachelor’s degree.

(One more reason to go back to school: according to Susan Kemper, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky who worked with Dr. David Snowden, author of The Nun Study, “…stimulating the brain with continuous intellectual activity keeps neurons healthy and live.” The study examined nuns in Minnesota who donated their brains to advance research in Alzheimer’s Disease. To read more:,9171,999867-5,00.html. )

Because I no longer sought education for employment, I had the luxury of being able to choose my major based on passion rather than necessity. I became a Literature & Writing major, with an emphasis in Writing. And so I entered two of the most enjoyable years of my life. I was unprepared for the bonuses I received that went far beyond the “book learning”.

When I first considered full-time school, I was terrified of walking into a classroom of teenagers and early 20-somethings. I expected whispered comments and perhaps giggles as this overweight 60-year-old walked in and was NOT the instructor, but a fellow-student. With the exception of one badly-brought-up girl who unfortunately was in two of my classes, that was not the case.

On Orientation Day, I was approached by a smiling young woman who had been a student at MiraCosta and who remembered me for having helped her. Her name was Michelle and she asked if she could join me for lunch. That began a friendship that continues to this day. We were classmates and soon became dear friends. I sometimes felt like a surrogate “Mom” when she was having difficulty and she often reminded me of my daughters and gave me a hug when I was stressed (read: every time I had a French test).

I figured out how to navigate the very large campus (they refer to it as “Stairmaster U” because of the hundreds of stairs between levels) and I had classes on all three levels. I quickly discovered every elevator and the nearest alternative elevator in the event the primary was out of order (that was necessary more times than I care to remember). If you ask today’s college student how you know when a senior citizen student is approaching, they will undoubtedly say “by the sound of their rolling cart bouncing over the walkways”.  If you consider going back to school, the first thing you want to buy is a rolling backpack or computer case. I would not have survived without it. As a LTWR major, I had as many as 35 books per semester.

And now for the “bonuses” I referred to. I became many students’ new “best friend”. Not actually, but you would have thought so as they seemed to appear daily at my desk at the end of class or in the hallways before class. After introductions often followed by a compliment or two about something I’d written, they would get to the heart of the matter, “Cathie, could you do me a favor? I see you taking notes on your computer in class. I have a _____________ (fill in the blank: doctor, dentist, etc.) appointment, could you send me the notes after the next class?” The simple action of attaching a file and hitting “send” garnered me dozens of new acquaintances who not only didn’t mind my being in their classes, but probably gained something because of it. Those same students always wanted to be in my “group” if we worked on projects. The word got out quickly and I remember laughing as I watched six students try to fill the four seats to my right in a class that the professor broke up into groups of five based on your seat the first day. Funny, but touching too…I know, I know; it wasn’t my dazzling personality, but my avid note-taking and refusal to get anything less than an “A”. The grades were assigned “as a group”.

I should mention here that many colleges and universities offer “incentives” for non-traditional (academia’s way of saying “old”) students. It seems there are people in administration who do see a value in having someone in, for instance a history class, who lived through many of the events the younger students know only from books. We add a voice that says, for example: “Yes, I remember that. I was on the ground in Atlanta waiting to fly to Miami when the captain opened the microphone to let us hear the radio message that said ‘that’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind’.” Life experience is of value. Even though I didn’t have a degree, I knew a lot. Without sounding boastful, I think I was smart, but I always felt I had to have that piece of paper to be validated.

I have one last bit of advice if you decide to go back to school. Find the Disabled Students office and offer to volunteer as a note-taker. This is especially easy if you take your notes on a laptop because all you have to do is attach the file (as mentioned earlier). Bonus for you: you get first-day registration at many institutions as a “thank you” for helping. And, more importantly, you meet some wonderful students who are grateful for your help and if you’re lucky, as I was, become friends you keep in touch with. One such student was paralyzed in a car accident when she was 18. She had such a wonderful spirit and such a vivid imagination and her writing never failed to touch my heart. She wrote one story that literally brought me to tears in class. It was about a fairy whose wings didn’t work and she couldn’t fly. She became friends with a caterpillar and at the end of the story the caterpillar-turned-butterfly carried her to the sky. Beautiful! Kim gave me a CD with her story, beautifully illustrated by her sister, and narrated by her friend. (You can see it at I treasure it. You can order this lovely story at: It is available for a nominal cost as a download or, for a little more, as a paperback.

When I graduated in May of 2006, I had a loving family in the stands. Because the university had no auditorium or stadium to hold the ceremony, they rented the Del Mar racetrack. My warped sense of humor wanted me to find someone to rent a horse costume with me, put a mortarboard on it, and prance down walkway from the paddock where we congregated to the track where we sat for the ceremony. But I engaged my serious side for that never-to-be-forgotten day. When they announced my name and “magna cum laude”, I swear I heard my daughters and husband cheering and they were joined by all of those “friends” whose lives I had touched and who had touched mine in return.

Rule #4 – don’t let fear keep you from doing anything…even becoming a “senior Senior


  1. We are still proud of your accomplishments, mom!

  2. Cathie, I am so enjoying your letters or blogs. (new word to my vocabulary!) You obviously learned well in your classes that you took for your degree as evident in these writings. And yes, you were already very smart before you got your degree! I would like to be able to write like you! See you soon. d.


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