Back to School: Seniors Returning to College

Dee Fabbioli, 78 years young, attends an honors history course at Syracuse University.Courtesy of Danielle Waugh
Dee Fabbioli, 78 years young, attends an honors history course at Syracuse University.

It was the first day of class. One by one, students began introducing their name, year and major.

They were a diverse class, with majors ranging from biology to musical theater. But among them, one major stood out:

"My name is Monroe Guisbond. I'm 86 years old, and I'm majoring in life."

A downhill skier for his "whole adult life," Guisbond realized he had to give up that hobby when he turned 80.

"That was difficult for me," Guisbond said. "So now my focus is on learning."

Guisbond is one of 10 elderly students taking Professor Margaret Thompson's honors history course, Religion and American Politics, at Syracuse University.

A Class Experiment

This intergenerational course is what Thompson would call an "experiment."

The elderly students are members of the Syracuse chapter of Oasis, a national nonprofit organization that offers adult education courses and volunteer opportunities to people 50 years and older.

From yoga to computer science, Oasis members enroll in different courses throughout the year. The cost varies from $7 for a one-time presentation to $65 for a series of courses.

The Syracuse chapter alone has more than 8,000 members, with 1,200 paying for classes.

From San Diego to Syracuse, Oasis has 27 chapters across the U.S. Since the organization began in 1982, the courses have been for the elderly only.

But that changed two years ago. When Thompson was preparing to teach a course on the 2008 election and new media, she had an idea.

She had given lectures to Oasis members, "and there were people there who really wanted to learn about new media," Thompson said.

"The older generation had more knowledge about politics," she said, "and the younger students had the more technical knowledge, so I thought, 'Let's bring them together and see what happens.'"

That course was the first intergenerational class Oasis had offered. This semester, Thompson decided to try it again.

"I knew it was a more rigorous course and not just, 'Oh, let's give the old people something to do," 69-year-old Eric Merson said.

Changing Perspectives

Thompson wants the two groups to learn from each other as much as they learn from her. She encourages the young and old to sit side-by-side and participate in group discussions.

The course includes topics from Islamophobia in the U.S. to religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

But one group appears to be dominating the class.

"The SU people need to step up," 79-year-old David Ashley said.

"The old guys like me, I don't mind dominating the conversation. I think the students may be a little intimidated by some of the oldsters," he laughed.

Katherine DiVita, a junior majoring in public relations, thinks Ashley is right.

"At first, I was intimidated because they have so much more experience and knowledge than we do, but I got more comfortable the more classes we had," DiVita said.

She's finding that their presence is putting things into perspective.

"So many times in college classes, we don't see the bigger picture -- why we're here, what we're doing with our education," DiVita said. "In a class like this, you see older people who have gone through the things we're going through now. It puts everything into context."

For some students, having class with the elderly was the reason they signed up.

Rebecca Shabad, a senior broadcast journalism and political science major, took the 2008 Election and New Media course with Thompson and members of Oasis in 2008.

"I looked forward to going to that class every week," Shabad said. "There was this back-and-forth dialogue ... and [Oasis members] talked to us about history, and we got that first-person perspective."

Shabad said the perspective of Oasis members helped her decide whom to vote for in the 2008 presidential election.

When she read that the Religion and American Politics course was also intergenerational, she immediately signed up.

The changing perspective goes both ways.

Both Shabad and Thompson shared a story about an Oasis member in the 2008 course who expressed his reservations about same-sex marriage during a discussion about Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative designed to restrict marriage to a man and a woman.

Their classmate, who they did not want to identify, told the class he had a gay son and was struggling to accept his lifestyle.

"It was pretty heavy," Shabad said.

Thompson agreed, but said the discussion ended up being "remarkable."

"I think the fact that [the Oasis member] saw a group of young people that was very diverse -- with Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives -- almost all of whom were very accepting of same-sex relationships, made him feel better about the life of his own child," Thompson said.

"It opened his eyes," she said, "and he was able to find people who were supportive and sympathetic."

Healthy Minds and Bodies

When 78-year-old Dee Fabbioli leaves class each week, she feels "energized."

"I've noticed [the undergraduates'] enthusiasm is contagious," she said.

Fabbioli may be experiencing what doctors say is a connection between a healthy mind and a healthy body.

Dr. Sharon Brangman, chief of geratrics at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, said those with better physical fitness often have sharper memories.

"We somehow used to think that the brain was a whole separate part of the body ... but now we know that it's vitally connected and anything you do to keep your body healthy also keeps your brain healthy," Brangman said.

But does it go both ways?

"I'm not sure, because it's all connected," she said. "It's like the chicken or the egg."

Life-Long Learners

The senior citizens from Syracuse Oasis are not the only members of their generation who choose college courses as part of their retirement.

At 80 years old, Dr. Irwin Mindell thinks he's just as alert now as when he was 30.

"I'm a compulsive learner," Mindell said. "I'm a perennial student."

Mindell audits classes two times a week at Hunter College in New York City. He still practices dentistry once a week in midtown Manhattan -- that is, when he's not studying British literature and anthropology.

This is his second semester at Hunter and he lives by the motto, "the mind is stretched by a new idea and never goes back to its original shape."

"I truly believe the brain is like a muscle and if you don't exercise it, it atrophies," he said.

Brangman thinks having someone like Mindell in a classroom not only can bring new perspectives, but also shatter stereotypes.

"We have a stereotype of aging activities, and that's playing shuffleboard or bingo or making crafts out of popsicle sticks," Brangman said. "But there's really no need to suddenly change the way we've been active and involved our whole lives just because you've gotten older."

Mindell says he's proof that it's true: "Last week, I had to do a presentation on Singapore -- and I aced it." contributor Danielle Waugh is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Syracuse, N.Y.