Never too late to learn

The label “senior student” is taking on a whole new meaning for a growing number of Canadians returning to university or college. While it’s difficult to determine the exact number of 50-plus students enrolled in Canadian institutions of higher learning, it’s a safe bet the total is in the thousands.

For the fall-winter term last year, for example, the University of Western Ontario (UWO) in London enrolled 271 students who were at the half-century mark, including 44 who were 60 or older.

Why are they subjecting themselves to the rigors of the 3-Rs at a stage of life when relaxation, recreation and rest would seem to be the goal? The reasons they give for heading back to school are as varied as the people themselves. 

In my case, earning a university degree was a long sought-after goal. I entered the workforce in 1946 without even completing my last year of high school, readily finding full-time employment in the booming post-war years. That first job led to an uninterrupted 46-year career in the Canadian newspaper and magazine industry.

Unfinished education
But in the back of my mind during those working years was my unfinied education, and the lack of formal learning my wife, children and most of my friends had earned. So in the year leading up to retirement I investigated the possibility of earning a university degree once out of the workaday world. To my surprise, I found it was possible to enrol as a university student without having completed high school.

I retired in March of 1992 and started my part-time studies at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) in September of that year.  Now, eight years later, I’m eight months and one senior credit course away from graduation with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Film Studies.

It’s a wonderfully rewarding feeling knowing my formal education journey is just about over.  But I’m not discounting the possibility of returning to school to take additional courses in a year or two — graduation need not be the end of learning!

And I’m not alone. All over Canada, east to west, north to south, 50-plus students are studying and interacting with university students that in many cases are young enough to be their grandchildren. And they’re enjoying every minute of the experience.

Enjoyable experience
Frances McCallum, 85, of West Lorne, Ont. (a small town near London), is a splendid example of an older student attaining a university degree late in life. Her story began in 1931 when, fresh out of high school, she tried to enrol in ‘Normal School’, as teacher’s college was called in those days, to pursue her goal of becoming a teacher. 

Finding herself one year shy of the minimum age to enter Normal School, she enrolled at the UWO, for the fall-winter term in 1931.  She completed that year, then achieved her aim of becoming a teacher.  As marriage and family followed, her dream of further education became distant.

She managed to complete two courses at UWO in 1936, but had to wait almost 30 years before taking two more courses in 1965. She resumed her studies at Western, between 1981 and 1993, taking a further nine courses before graduating, an amazing 62 years after her 1931 freshman year.

Faculty reaction
How do faculty members react to having 50-plus students in their class?

“I welcome older students. They bring a wealth of experience to the classroom, especially for seminars and tutorials.  And their presence in the class makes history come alive for younger students,” says J. Rodney Millard, a history professor at UWO.

David Spencer, associate professor of journalism at UWO, concurs: “By and large they’re determined folk who end up with great grades. One person in particular I remember was a retired CBC vice-president who graduated from law school after finishing his Bachelor of Arts degree. Of course, I got the retired journalist sitting in my media class.  It was a bit intimidating until I learned this person had a wealth of experience to contribute.”

And what do younger students think of their 50-plus classmates?  Again, from my experience, they think it’s “cool”. 

Jennifer Brittan, a UWO English literature graduate, says: “I love senior students in my classes — they remind you just why you’re here – first and foremost, to learn. And who better to learn from than our older student friends.”

Dawson Winchester is a freelance writer living in St. Thomas, Ont. He enrolled as a part-time undergraduate university student in 1992 and hopes to graduate from UWO next year, shortly before his 72nd birthday.