Seniors showing age not barrier to higher learning

September 09, 2004, vol. 31, no. 6
By Carol Thorbes

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Betty Sawyer would make a fitting poster person for Simon Fraser University's rapidly expanding seniors program in continuing studies.

“I appreciate the discipline of doing research and writing papers. It proves to me my mind can still accomplish a lot in my later years,” says Sawyer, an SFU student, who, at 75, still gets asked for ID because of her youthful looks.

She has been taking one course a semester for 15 years, and is typical of the kind of students attracted to SFU's 30-year-old seniors program.

Its annual enrolment for non-credit courses has tripled from 297 four years ago to almost 1,000 today.

Like many seniors, Sawyer is keen to flex her mental muscles.

“A university education was not an option for a young woman in the 1950s in Windsor, Ontario, my hometown,” says the mother of five.

A newly created certificate program enables seniors to become SFU alumni after completing eight non-credit courses.

Retired SFU historian Alan Aberbach, the director of the seniors program and an instructor, predicts the certificate program will motivate more seniors to go for a full-fledged degree.

“It's exciting to see seniors use our collection of non-credit courses as a halfway house that helps them make the transition to life as a fulltime university student,” says Aberbach.

About half a dozen seniors annually obtain a degree from SFU.

Aberbach notes life-long learning is a serious venture for students in their later years.

“Seniors actually do all the reading,” says Aberbach incredulously. “They are incensed if their course outlines aren't ready when expected.”

Aberbach's annual surveys of seniors' interests have consistently led him to provide a wide offering of courses, ranging from world politics to religion.

“Religion and politics are playing an increasingly important role in the stability of societies worldwide,” reflects Sawyer. “Life experiences have taught seniors we need to do a better job of understanding each other if we're to have world peace.”

This year, the seniors program has expanded its offering of non-credit courses from 10 to 13.

One compares world religions and politics, another analyses the link between terrorism and fundamentalism.

The program will also offer, for the first time, free monthly forums, open to anyone, but catering to seniors' interests.

The first three are: The Clash of Fundamentalism and Prospects for Peace in the Holy War, Understanding the American Presidency, and Unions in Today's World: Relevant or Irrelevant.

Seniors looking for more information on the program should attend an open house at Harbour Centre on Sept. 10 at 10:30 a.m.

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