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Lifelong Learners: Profiling mature students at the University of Alberta

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While older students are the most visible mature students, the Office of the Registrar defines a “mature student” as anyone 21-years-old or older by the first day of classes of the term in which the student decides to enrol. Here are four of their stories.

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Powel Crosley

“In the old days, they had 35 mm slides that would project up onto the screen and now they have Powerpoint. The other difference is when we were bored we would just doodle and now everyone sits around with their little Smartphone doing Facebook or Twitter.”

Powel Crosley would stand out in a lecture hall full of first-years — his long hair is usually tied in a ponytail and the grey left in his beard is giving way to white. In 2010, he returned to university after 29 years to take 100-level science classes. He’s 61.

In 1996, Crosley’s wife, Sladjana, was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer called a granulosa cell tumour (GCT), and she died in 2009. Of the 2,600 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer in Canada, GCT affects five to eight per cent of them. GCT, in its advanced stage, has a mortality rate of 80 per cent, and little research has been conducted so far to find a treatment.

One year after her death, Crosley enrolled in basic science classes at the U of A intending to help find a drug treatment himself. A few years later, he earned a position as an independent researcher in the Department of Oncology, working in Mary Hitt’s lab. His work attempts to look for vulnerabilities in GCT that will cause the cells to kill themselves.

Crosley is well aware of a certain discourse occasionally voiced on campus. Mature students are condemned for taking up places in classes that could be used for younger students, but Crosley understands that perspective.

“I’d think it’d be pretty weird to have some old person sit in my class,” Crosley says.

In the ’70s, he was working toward a PhD in geography, but decided against pursuing it further and instead got a job. He says there are two minor differences between being in class back then and today.

“In the old days, they had 35 mm slides that would project up onto the screen and now they have Powerpoint. The other difference is when we were bored we would just doodle and now everyone sits around with their little Smartphone doing Facebook or Twitter,” he says.

Upon returning to school, Crosley found the exams to be the biggest challenge of his science classes.

“My brain just got fried,” he says. “I found that when it came to taking tests, I really suck. (In one class) when I did the assignments, I got top marks, but when I took the exam, I got a 50 (per cent). I got out of the course with a B+, which is fine. But it was such a stressful experience.”

He considered pursuing a Master’s in oncology to earn a degree for all the classes he was taking anyway, but he was deterred by exams and their immense stress.

“It’s not going to do anything for me. I’m not making a career out of this, so they let me do what I want to do for research and I was fortunate to get a couple grants for what I’m doing, so I feel at least I’m giving back to the department. I brought some money in that they wouldn’t have otherwise had,” he says.

Crosley is only in one class this year: Creative Writing. He completed a 55,000-word manuscript about his wife, but when he got to his first writing class, he realized all he had was a “book of facts” and that a central story was missing. He writes his essay assignments as chapters toward his book. He estimates the entire rewriting process will take another 18 months.

“I wrote an article describing Yugoslavia in 1959 and threw in some stories (Sladjana) had told me,” says Crosley. “(The instructor) graded that pretty well, so maybe that’ll get me over the hump on that. It’s turning out be a lot longer than what I thought it would be.”

Crosley sometimes feels out of place being the oldest member of a class. He wasn’t aware of certain concepts that came up in his writing class, such as role-playing games. But being surrounded by younger students makes him feel young.

“When I’m hanging out with kids, I don’t feel old. I look at you and I think ‘Hey, we could go out drinking. We could go raise some hell.’ Then all of a sudden I pass by a mirror and I go ‘Oh, crap. Who am I fooling.’ It’s kind of bizarre.”

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Krista Walczak

“For example, should I drop a course? Quit my job? And if I am taking a full course load, I may even leave a course or two on the back burner and only pay attention to them when necessary. With this you cannot put your child aside, so it’s either my studies or my job.”

Krista Walczak is a 25-year-old, fourth-year German major with a Drama minor. She’s spending the year in Germany as part of a direct exchange program for credit. She worked in retail out of high school and got a job at a call centre when her daughter, Kyra, was just under a year old. Kyra will be five in April.

“I didn’t care for the call centre because I felt the environment was very mundane and stressful,” Walczak writes from Berlin. “I was never happy and I felt I couldn’t be creative, and since it conflicted with drama rehearsals, I decided to quit.”

Walczak plans on getting a translation job. She enjoys university because it gave her the opportunity to travel to Germany and immerse herself in the language with which she wants to work. She enjoys the subjects she’s learning and appreciates university because she doesn’t always agree with her peers and her professors.

“I choose carefully what information to accept. In the end, (being selective) teaches me how to think,” she says.

Attending university with a young child also poses a number of challenges to Walczak. She admits that finances are a problem and she also works on a typical day while going to school. She  says that being both a student and a parent makes finding time for herself difficult.

Kyra now attends a German kindergarten. Walczak is grateful that her father looked after Kyra when they lived in Canada. The most overwhelming days for Walczak were when either her father or her daughter became ill.

“Needing to go to the doctor’s in the dead of winter does not help you when you have a ten-page paper due the next day,” she says.

At first, she didn’t realize how demanding university courses would be. Over time, she realized she had to “pick her battles.”

“For example, should I drop a course? Quit my job? And if I am taking a full course load, I may even leave a course or two on the back burner and only pay attention to them when necessary. With this you cannot put your child aside, so it’s either my studies or my job.”

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Jeanna Baty & Carol Vaage

“My daughter said ‘You’re retired mom, why don’t you just sit in your rocking chair and put your feet up?’ I said, ‘because this feeds my soul and my spirit. This is what keeps me alive.'”

For mature students older than 50 who want a less intense atmosphere, the Edmonton Lifelong Learners Association (ELLA) is provided in partnership with the U of A’s Faculty of Extension. ELLA is a volunteer-run, non-for-profit organization offering a wide variety of spring session, university-level courses for mature students — or, as ELLA prefers to call them, “third-age” learners.

Two ebullient ELLA board members, Jeanna Baty, Chair of Marketing, and President Carol Vaage, run the organization while being ELLA students. Vaage explains that first-age learning is schooling, second-age learning is career learning, and third-age learning is post-career learning for its own sake.
“(Third-age learner) is preferred mostly because we don’t like being called ‘old,’” says Baty.

ELLA is offering 41 courses this spring semester in a wide variety of subjects including history, genetics, tai chi and photography, all in the Education Building at the University of Alberta North campus. Participants pay $240 and can take up to four classes. ELLA also offers noon-hour lectures, featuring presentations by a number of U of A professors and figures in the community such as columnist Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal.

The best part about ELLA, Baty and Vaage both agree, is that there’s no homework. Baty adds that she much prefers ELLA to a university class where the students can hardly stay awake.

“I’ve heard one or two professors say ‘I wish I could take (an ELLA) class and plop it into the middle of my first-year class, so (younger students) would know what it’s like to be engaged,’” Baty says.

Arts classes are very popular with ELLA but many have an enrolment limit, so science classes also fill up quickly. The enthusiasm for learning in ELLA classes so impressed CBC Radio One’s science columnist and U of A PhD graduate Torah Kachur that she returned a year later to teach a full three-week class rather than give noon-hour lectures.

I asked the ladies which was the best way to encourage lifelong learning: by learning specific skill sets at university, or through open-ended learning, involving exploration and trying new things?

“I think you could ask anyone of us and we’d have a different opinion because we come from a different place,” says Vaage, a little hesitantly. “I believe the way to do that is a liberal arts beginning. You build a foundation and you need to get engaged.”

“Exactly,” agrees Baty.

Energy, community and enthusiasm for learning keep ELLA members young at heart.

“My daughter said ‘You’re retired mom, why don’t you just sit in your rocking chair and put your feet up?’” says Vaage. “I said, ‘because this feeds my soul and my spirit. This is what keeps me alive.’”

 

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