Lifelong Learning: Back to School for Boomers

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People decades past freshman age are heading back to school, and colleges and universities across Canada are rolling out the welcome mat to greet them.

By Ian MacNeill

They’re coming for a variety of reasons. Some are lifelong learners looking to expand their horizons and promote social interaction with like-minded peers, while others are mid-lifers intent on either upgrading their skills in a rapidly changing employment market or those looking to make a wholesale career change, some because they have to and some because they want to.

In many cases, going back to school is a way of making wishes come true. As children, we all imagined what we were going to be when we grew up: doctors, astronauts, musicians, artists, firefighters, carpenters, chefs, actors, designers, writers, you name it.

But then life happened and we got pulled in different directions, only to find ourselves in middle age still pining for that which we never made happen. Obviously, there are a lot of careers you can’t turn to in your 40s, 50s and 60s but thanks to longer and healthier living circumstances and a proliferation of educational opportunities, many mid-life Canadians are making their childhood dreams come true. Putting a face to the trend is Toronto’s Seneca College’s 2013 valedictorian, Steve Wilson, 47, who spent 25 years building everything from racing engines to housing projects before deciding to sign up for Seneca’s engineering program.

“I was doing fine financially but I just didn’t feel fulfilled,” says Wilson, who says he worked alongside building impresario Mike Holmes “before he became famous.”

In many cases, schools are glad to get students like Wilson. They bring a wealth of experience and often end up mentoring as much as learning; on the way to getting his own degree, Wilson tutored fellow students at Seneca’s Learning Centre.

“I was able to explain concepts to them using concrete examples from my own experience,” he says. “I’ve built engines, I’ve been to the Bonneville Salt Flats and I’ve driven at 220 kilometres an hour for sustained periods. I can explain things to them, and they get it!”

Students like Wilson are anything but the exception, says Sal Ferreras of Vancouver Community College.

“We get lots of them,” says the school’s vice-president of education and student services. Some are starting a new career, while others are coming to round out degrees they already have with applied skills. Career changers are ubiquitous, he says. They are often people who have done one thing for half their life but secretly harboured a passion to do something else. They reach a certain age and think, “If not now, when?” Ferreras says his renowned culinary and pastry arts school is littered with refugees from other professions, including law and hair design.

Schools are adapting to meet the needs of mid-life learners in a variety of ways, says Gail Derrington, employment and training centre manager at Centennial College in Toronto.

“We know they’re nervous coming in,” she says, adding that the school irons out the transition from workplace to classroom by offering adult-learner orientation sessions and providing school counsellors and advisers who are trained to help mid-lifers develop strategies that will not just get them through courses but also help them achieve their goals.

“It’s all about educating students for career success regardless of their their age,” says Mary Devine, chair of Centennial’s School of Continuing Education. Upgrading skills or developing new ones is only part of the equation, of course; the proof is in the placement. To help students go from graduation to getting a job, the school works directly with employers, some of whom sit on advisory panels and many of whom participate in co-op work programs designed to provide students of all ages with on-the-job experience prior to graduation. Sometimes, these turn into full-time job offers.

Prospective mid-life career changers fearful of being left out of the job market by ageism can take heart from observations by VCC’s Ferreras about future prospects. “The job prospects are invariably very good for them because these people know the scene; they know how to get work and, through their experiences, they have developed people skills, so their success tends to be very good.” What’s more, he says, older grads appeal to employers because they tend to be extremely focused and determined, carrying with them as they do in many cases large financial responsibilities, including families and mortgages.

Learning for learning’s sake

Not every mid-lifer taking to the classroom is motivated by a need or desire to maintain relevance in the workplace. Retired and semi-retired Canadians are engaging in lifelong learning as an end itself, and research indicates those who do live happier and healthier lives.

There have always been later-life learners, says Sandra Kerr, director of programs for 50+ at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University in Toronto, and the trend is definitely accelerating as Canada’s population ages.

“There are a number of reasons we get for it,” she says. “A lot of them want to be more challenged in their lives, they want to keep their brain active, but they also want to share their knowledge and learn from others.”

These learners are less motivated by marks and credits than in learning for its own sake, and being part of the academic milieu. In response, Ryerson has developed a liberal arts program modelled on one developed by the Institute for Learning in Retirement at Harvard University, which is peer-led and pretty much “runs on its own.” Older learners like the idea of being in classes with their peers, she says, but they also enjoy mucking in with the larger student community of 20-somethings just starting out in life.

Currently, Ryerson offers as many as 50 liberal arts courses to mid-life learners as well as nearly 15 in its immensely popular theatre program.

“We find a lot of them are attracted to theatre because they performed in their high-school plays when they were younger and have always harboured a desire to get back to it on some level, and now they have the time,” says Kerr.

Music classes are also popular, allowing people whose flutes or clarinets have been lying silent for decades to dust them off and make beautiful music – or something like it – all over again.

Other universities in Canada offer similar kinds of programs: McGill has its Community for Lifelong Learning, the University of British Columbia offers Programs Especially for Seniors and the University of Regina offers courses for mid-lifers through its Lifelong Learning Centre. The courses offered may not result in credits and degrees, but they do allow access to the world of academe, including the pubs in the student union building where, Kerr says, students of all ages are welcome.


Rosemary Graydon, 87 (pictured on page 1)

Rosemary Graydon’s first turn on the stage came at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts during the London Blitz circa 1940, a time when the excitement of the stage was exceeded only by the whirl of events taking place around her.

“It was a grand adventure,” she recalls. “I don’t ever remember being afraid. If we were at a restaurant when the air raid sirens sounded, we’d crawl under the tables and come back out when it passed.”

Although she had ambitions of performing in repertory theatre, history and circumstances intervened. She joined the Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service) during the war, got married after it ended, had two children in the ’50s, and raised them in the ’60s. Then came the wild ’70s followed by the ’80s, a decade of great tragedy for her. Although divorced in 1977, she was happily remarried in 1978 and then embarked on a career in the investment business. “I turned out to be very good at it,” she recalls.

Then, with everything going her way, tragedy struck when her second husband died of a heart attack in 1984. She married again in 1985, only to lose this husband in less than two years to a brain tumour. “I was in really bad shape,” she recalls. “I didn’t know where to turn for help.”

This time, life called her back in a different way. In 1994, she heard about Act II Studio, a theatre school for older adults at Ryerson University and she’s been living a life of purpose ever since. “It’s a fantastic, caring place where you can do a million things: learn to act or direct, how to do scenery or costumes, be a playwright.” The group is renowned for plays it performs based on medical issues afflicting older adults. She’s been in No Big Deal, which raises the curtain on prostate cancer, and I’m Still Here, which illustrates the lives of men and women living with dementia.

A personal favourite is The Accidental Inheritance, which is about the fights kids can get into when their parents die without a proper will and which the troupe performs to great applause at retirement homes.

Between gigs, she acts as a “standardized patient” for medical students tasked with puzzling out whatever disease she has, based
on symptoms she pretends to exhibit. It’s either that or community theatre, or Shakespeare; there’s always something. In addition to learning and living, Act II has brought her into contact with plenty of like-minded peers. “You’d have to be pretty peculiar if you weren’t able to make friends.”

The open question now though is when to call it quits. “I’m not sure how long I can keep it up,” she says. “I’m 87 now, you know.” But then she rings off because she’s got things to do and places to go.


Huda Hamoudi, 40s

When Iraqi-born Huda Hamoudi arrived in Canada as a landed immigrant from Libya in 2007 with her husband and two daughters, she knew she was going to have trouble finding work, this despite the fact that her credentials were both extensive and impeccable. In addition to holding a PhD in structural engineering, she had more than a decade of teaching experience and a working resumé stretching to 14 pages, including a stint in Baghdad where she evaluated the structural integrity of ancient buildings.

In addition to parachuting into an alien culture and working in a second language, she had trouble acquiring her transcripts from the university in Baghdad where she’d obtained her degrees in the ’90s. She’d fled the war in Iraq by moving to Libya and couldn’t return after the invasion of 2001 and the fall of Saddam Hussein. So she and her husband, Khalid Fattah, chose Canada. It took two years to receive her transcripts but, instead of sitting around waiting for the mail to arrive, she got a job as a technologist in a rebar factory and signed up for a civil/structural drafting program at Vancouver Community College.

“I was eager to understand the study environment in Canada, and drafting was a useful bridge to an engineering position,” she says. Ultimately, she got a job with Ausenco, an Australian-based engineering giant. She still needs to write the B.C. engineering exam, which she expects to do sooner rather than later and, when she does, she can continue doing the thing she loves: designing and building.

She says it was tough going back to school, not just in middle age but coming from another country, steeped in another culture and speaking a second language.

“It was very hard for me,” she says. “I had been teaching for 12 years.” But the instructors went out of their way to make her feel comfortable, she says, and she found herself in familiar company: engineers from around the world doing the same thing.

Going back to school turned out to be the solution to all her problems, she says. “It was through the college that I learned about the companies in Canada, and drafting was a way to get in the door.” It was also a good place to become comfortable with the Canadian culture and refine her language skills.

Johnny Perry, 50

After a 30-year absence from school, Johnny Perry’s first instinct when he sat down for class at Vancouver Community College was to bolt for the exit, this despite the fact that the course material was near and dear to his heart. “I thought of every excuse under the sun to not go,” he says.

He turned it around for himself though using a trick he’d learned early in life – honesty. When it was his turn to introduce himself to his classmates, he came clean, admitting he was scared to death.

“It turned out to be the perfect icebreaker,” he recalls fondly. “There was this collective sigh of relief, and all these other people starting to say how they felt the same way.

“You find when you go into adult education that you have something very important in common with your classmates, and that’s an interest in the material you are studying, which in our case was counselling and helping people,” he says.

Although he worked as a successful chef for 30 years, he’d secretly harboured a desire to help people by being a counsellor. He took a few classes in his younger days but felt he didn’t have enough life experience to qualify for the job. He added that experience to his resumé over three decades by working in kitchens up and down the West Coast; everything from fishing boats in Alaska to high-end hotels and restaurants in Vancouver and Whistler.

He eventually got a job as head chef with the Potluck Café Society, an award-winning social enterprise that creates jobs and provides healthy food for people living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Recognizing his talent for helping people, his boss asked him to take counselling courses at VCC so he could become Recipes for Success Manager, which is more about cooking up opportunity for the disadvantaged than cobbling together entrées. Nowadays, he works with other mission-based businesses and similarly like-minded organizations in the Downtown Eastside, helping them hire folks who have had limited success in finding and keeping jobs, often because of mental health or addiction issues. It’s great work, he says, but he is going to miss school.



Older Canadians requiring financial assistance can access a variety of provincial and federal programs designed to promote education, upgrade skills, and facilitate career change.

— The federal Lifelong Learning Program allows individuals to withdraw funds from their Registered Retirement Savings Plan to finance training or education for themselves, their spouse, or common-law partner.

— The Government of Canada offers Canada Student Loans to eligible full- and part-time post-secondary students in most provinces and territories. Quebec, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut offer their own student financial assistance programs.

— Targeted Initiative for Older Workers helps unemployed people in eligible communities aged 55 to 64 return to work. This federal-provincial program under Human Resources and Skills Development Canada is designed to provide employment assistance services such as resumé writing and counselling and improves participants’ employability through activities such as skills upgrading and work experience.

— In Ontario, Second Career offers qualified applicants cost-sharing grants of up to $28,000 for tuition, books, transportation and basic living. Post-secondary institutions across Canada can direct potential students toward regionally offered income-assistance programs.