The Grey-Haired Gopher

Thursday, October 11, 2018

by Tom Anderson

It was almost serendipitous that I stumbled upon the Senior Citizen Education Program (SCEP). There it was in an article about great education benefits for us older people. It doesn’t take much to explain SCEP: Any Minnesota resident over the age of 62 can audit a class at the U for free or take them for credit for a ridiculously low tuition rate. I love a challenge and I love to learn so I immediately completed the on-line application. Not long after, on the same day, my granddaughter started junior high, and I went back to college. I recently learned as of Fall 2018,  I was one of 506 senior citizens enrolled at the U thanks to SCEP.

During my 36-year career at 3M my job responsibilities nearly always included travel. Domestically or globally, it was not unusual for me to leave on a Sunday evening flight, returning late on Friday. That was not, however, idle time but rather time spent voraciously reading anything historical. I am one of those history geeks that has read at least one biography of every President of the United States in chronological order, no less. Not only that but the ancillary subjects, too, like Vice Presidents, First Ladies, First Children, First Pets, the White House, Air Force One, the Secret Service; all things Presidential. Beyond the presidency my love of history has led me to and through not only iconic American events and people but a global bibliography as well. Finding out I was 50% Scottish, for example, led me to pursue no less than seven books on the history of Scotland and its people. I don’t really know if there was a time when I was not involved with some form of historiography.

That, however, was all self-directed. The Senior Citizen Education Program allows me the opportunity to spend my “golden years” immersed in historical study at the definitive level under the guidance of qualified historians. A Bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Minnesota would mean far more than my first Bachelor’s (a B.A. in Business Communication from Augsburg College) because it would stem from being directed, challenged, and mentored by a world class faculty in a subject I truly love.

There are hundreds of senior citizen students with those kinds of stories on-campus, but it’s not always as easy for us as it is for the traditional aged student body. It starts at Orientation – no one tells the incoming freshmen class – or even transfer students for that matter – that, oh yeah, you might be sitting in class next to someone as old as your Grandpa! They also don’t tell the incoming senior citizen student that life has changed drastically since you last (if ever) set foot on a college campus.

Have you ever walked into a room where you were the only one of your kind, e.g. race or gender, as an example? That’s the way it is for the senior citizen student every time they walk into a classroom. The University needs to do a much better job of helping us help each other by way of introduction at Orientation. Eliminate that discomfort. We love being around the traditional-aged student and learning with and from you. We’re just looking to be part of the campus community. We contribute to the diversity of this institution, yet we don’t feel included.

Once we are on campus there also is absolutely no senior citizen-specific support network; we really are on our own. There are literally hundreds of student organizations on campus but, guess what? Not a single one for the senior citizen student. We also don’t have specific representation on the Student Senate. Our needs are not that different from other students but it is always easier when you do need help that you get that help from someone your own age, someone who can identify with your experience.

To traditional-aged students – you’ve probably been in a class with an older student. Think about that older woman that was in one of your classes. She’s probably someone’s Grandma. Let’s just say, for the moment, she was your Grandma. First of all, you should be really, really proud of her. She’s over 62 and going back to college. Your Grandma is one very brave and inspirational woman. Second, how would you like your fellow students to treat your Grandma? Just a “Hi!” or a conversation that tells us we’re accepted here would be a great start! The details of building a campus support system and getting incorporated into Orientation can come with time. Maybe one day the U will have a senior citizen representative on the Student Senate. In the meantime, all we want is to be accepted. In the end, isn’t that what we all want? See, we really are no different than you. Just a little older, that’s all. We just want to spend a few of our “golden years” as Golden Gophers.

 Photo caption: Tom with his granddaughter on their shared first day of class this fall.

This perspectives piece was later published as a letter to the editor in the MN Daily.


"Perspectives" stories are the views and opinions of their authors and do not necessarily reflect any official position of the University of Minnesota.