On the eve of her 60th birthday, Joan Gunby enrolled in a degree program at Salisbury University. She had recently moved to the Eastern Shore from Anne Arundel County, where she’d earned an associate degree at Anne Arundel Community College. “I had always wanted to go to a university, and being 40 minutes away from SU made it possible,” says Gunby, who still works two days a week as a veterinary assistant.
She enjoys telling the story of her mom and dad, both in their eighties, who proudly sport a bumper sticker identifying them as the parents of an SU student— “right next to their handicapped tags,” says Gunby, whose own daughter is a college freshman.
Seniors are sprinkled among younger students at many Maryland institutions of higher learning—and the desire to explore new horizons has spawned several seniors-only programs. Members of the 60+ generation, numbering 15 percent of the state’s population, are highly motivated to continue learning. And as boomers reach that magical stage of life, the trend is likely to gain momentum.
Take, for example, Richard and Harriet Burkhart. Married for 55 years and still going strong at 70-something, the two are familiar faces on the campus of Anne Arundel Community College. “We take courses in whatever topic comes up in our lives that we want to know more about,” says Richard, an MBA who retired from Eastman Kodak in 1991.
The Burkharts are part of a growing number of senior citizens spending their free time in the classroom rather than on the golf course or at the bridge table. In 1989, the University System of Maryland (USM), which includes 11 universities, two research institutions, and two separate institutions of higher learning, started offering tuition-free classes to qualifying citizens age 60 and over. Each institution has its own admission policies but shares common guidelines.
Juanita Brown, 70, took advantage of the USM program in 1995 by enrolling in a degree program at Coppin State. It took her about eight years to earn her B.S. in management science, during which time she nursed an adopted daughter through four kidney transplants and cared for her 96-year-old father. “I was determined to get a college degree,” says the 1956 high-school graduate who is now studying for her master’s in family counseling. She continues as a volunteer at Coppin Academy and as a reader (for the past 45 years) at her church.
While visiting Annapolis during the Volvo Ocean Race several years ago, Notre Dame grad Ed Schumaker, 62, accompanied a friend to a few classes at St. John’s College. It was there that he had an “a-ha moment.” Back home in Michigan, Schumaker told his wife he wanted to move to Maryland and study for a master’s degree in liberal arts.
He applied to—and was accepted by— both St. John’s College and Johns Hopkins University, choosing JHU because “St. John’s didn’t have a seat for me right away.” Today, nearing completion of his first year, Schumaker says he thoroughly enjoys his classes and has high praise for his professors, who are all younger than he. Schumaker, who considers the concept of “retirement” imprecise (“it’s a North American concept”), is happy with his lifestyle change. In fact, he’s preparing to fly to Paris with 13 fellow students on a school-sponsored field trip.
Such perks as Paris are not confined to JHU’S degree track. Salisbury University’s Learn with SU program, which offers non-credit classes for seniors, offers its students travel opportunities to destinations such as Rome, Paris, and Greece.
Brian Stiegler, director of SU’s Center for International Education, says the travel options were until recently available only to SU undergrads and alumni. “Opening it up for seniors enrolled in Learn with SU has brought new energy to the group, bringing in folks young enough to travel and old enough to have the time to do so.”