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Senior years

Look to your left; look to your right; one of you will break a hip this semester
By EVA WOLCHOVER  |  August 15, 2007

It's a hot day in mid summer. A handful of students play Frisbee on Boston University's Marsh Plaza; sunbathers dot the lawn behind the chapel, a few more ride by on bikes. Except for the steady swish of cars on Storrow Drive, the campus is still — downright lethargic.

Inside the mostly empty George Sherman Union (GSU), two gray-haired ladies drink Starbucks coffee from paper mugs. A tall, elegant woman with snow-white hair makes her way up the open stairway in the lobby. At 10:50 am, the coffee drinkers rise and follow her.

Upstairs, a stylish middle-aged woman dressed all in white waits for her husband. He stops to chat with another couple as they pass him on the stairs.

These are the BU Evergreeners — chatty and well-dressed, brandishing ballpoints and Starbucks, they're here for the 11 am lecture on "Edward Hopper and His Contemporaries" in the GSU's Conference Auditorium.

Hair flying, Professor Jonathan Ribner bolts up the isle on the left. He spreads his notes on the podium and looks out over an audience of nearly 70. Rarely are his undergrads so captivated. The talking lulls to a murmur.

Seminars such as this one cost from $30 to $60 and last several weeks. They're devoted to a variety of subjects, generally focused in the liberal arts, and are offered year-round. For $75 per course, Evergreen students can also audit any undergraduate or graduate course offered in the BU catalog.

Evergreen is one of several Boston-area programs catered specifically to senior citizens. It attracts upwards of 300 people per year, ages 58 and older, and the size of the student body is rising steadily.

Across the river, the Harvard Institute of Learning in Retirement (HILR), a peer-teaching program with more than 500 participants is now so popular that it turns away people. Brandeis has its own version, the Bernard Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (Bolli), and there are dozens of other continuing-ed programs open to everyone — including senior citizens — at schools all over Greater Boston.

After years spent toiling in offices, raising families, and paying taxes, the Evergreen students seem thrilled to be back at school. It's as though they've come full circle — arriving back at the last time they felt free of responsibility. Unlike their late-teen undergraduate counterparts, though, they haven't got the pressures of young adulthood looming over them.

Definitely old school
Lori Wassermann, a slender 67-year-old with brown pixie-cut hair, has been attending Evergreen seminars for nearly four years. She's been to lectures on film, jazz, architecture, and American lit, and plans to audit music courses at BU once she retires.

No stranger to academia, Wassermann has two graduate degrees from Harvard and a double major in English and math from Pennsylvania's Bucknell University.

When she decided to continue her studies, she chose Evergreen because it was affordable and gave her access to BU professors, as opposed to, say HILR and other peer programs, where "members" teach and mentor each other.

"The BU one suits me so well," she says, seated in a study lounge upstairs at the GSU. "They don't talk down to you; they assume that the people are bright, and so you learn a lot. It isn't just a time filler. A lot of programs just sort of assume retirees only want to know about trips they can take."

Apart from the professors, the Evergreeners themselves attract Wassermann to the program. "I'm fascinated by the people who attend," she says. "I think the audience questions are amazing and educated, and I'm so impressed by the kinds of people we have in the Boston area."

Phyllis White, an effervescent former-teacher in her mid 60s, has audited more than 40 courses at BU — at least 10 on art history, every single Middle Eastern–studies class, and dozens on international relations.

"I know so many of the professors; I've become like a groupie to some of them," she says. "I didn't take a class last year because there was nothing left to take. I'd have to repeat. I've had Dr. Ribner. I've had them all."

White describes being in graduate seminars where the Evergreen students outnumbered the graduates 12 to six. She once took an art-history course from a professor whose daughter she'd taught in elementary school.

Despite her ambitious course load, she's not interested in getting another degree.

"Now I just want to go and listen. If I want to read the course material I read it. If I don't, I don't have to."

Seventy-five-year-old Cal Kolbe, the abovementioned woman with snow-white hair, was graduated from BU 50 years ago with a degree in English. Years later, she went back to school and got an MEd.

As a retired academic editor and writer, Kolbe was drawn to BU's Editorial Institute, a full-spectrum program in writing, publication, and literary editing. Since joining Evergreen four years ago, she's audited one course per semester.

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Related: Across the Universe, Changing concentrations, Books tour, More more >
  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis University,  More more >
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