September 10, 2008

Older, Wiser and Happily Going Back to College


On a stage at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, the guest professor from Brown University is lecturing about why the 2008 presidential election is such a crucial one. Her audience is quiet and attentive. And as she mentions key moments from past presidential campaigns, many heads some of them bald, some of them gray nod in recognition.

Baby boomers comprise a large part of the student body of One Day University a two-year-old program that brings professors from different Ivy League and other top-tier schools to various locations for "a day of stimulating, thought-provoking, live, classroom experiences." The next session at St. Elizabeth's Saturday will include another political science lecture called "Public Opinion Polls: Why You Shouldn't Believe the News."

Lifelong learning is very popular with baby boomers, who are also enrolling in colleges, universities and graduate schools. We go back to school for various reasons to stay competitive, lay the foundation for a second career, take care of unfinished business, learn something new or even change the world.

"I think with the baby boom generation there's a belief that if you invest in yourself and in your education, it will not only improve your own situation, but it will help improve society," says Dean Kenneth T. Vehrkens of Fairleigh Dickinson University's Petrocelli College of Continuing Studies, where there's been a surge in boomer enrollment.

"It used to be that we defined our lives in three stages. The first was formal education, the second, work and family, and the third, if you were lucky enough to live that long, was retirement," says Vehrkens. "But now, learning transcends the second and third stage, and even people in retirement come back and take courses, and might look to be a consultant or do part-time work."

As boomers return to their studies, learning institutions are accommodating them with flexible schedules, satellite campuses, online courses and the like.

Always wanted 'to finish'

One of Petrocelli College's "wonderful students," Vehrkens says, is Wanda Ferrauiola of Tenafly. The 60-year-old mother of four enrolled five years ago and earned her bachelor's degree in individualized studies in 2006, and her master's in administrative science in 2007. She is now an adjunct professor at FDU, teaching complementary and integrative medicine.

"It's so exciting just to be learning," she says.

Ferrauiola started FDU as a commuter student in 1965 but life got in the way.

"After the first semester, I left and attended night school for a little while, but then stopped at like 38 credits," the Bronx native says. "I got married [to] my high school sweetheart and then didn't go back to school, but in the back of my mind, it was always something that I needed to finish."

College was a family affair

She was working at Hackensack University Medical Center when a team from Petrocelli College came to talk to employees there. She decided to take the plunge, and even though decades had passed, the college gave her credits for the courses she'd taken at least the ones she'd done well in.

"I was a much better student this time than I was when I was at 17," says Ferrauiola, who received a dean's award in 2007 for outstanding academic achievement.

At one point, Ferrauiola and her husband were in graduate school while two of their children were in college.

"It was amazing to watch everybody at their laptops studying, doing papers," she says.

Current FDU student Theresa Jackson, 52, of Lincoln Park, has even had her kids check the formatting of her papers. Her two sons were in college when she went back for her bachelor's degree in nursing a year and a half ago.

A registered nurse, Jackson earned her associate's degree years ago.

"Back then, there wasn't yet that big of a push to go back for your BSN, and when it did occur to me that I should have gone back, I had already started to have my children and just never found the time," says Jackson, who kept moving up within nursing management. "It got to the point where, really, I should have had a degree to support my position, but because I had longevity and so much experience, it was kind of overlooked. I ended up being very uncomfortable with that. I knew I needed to finish the degree, so I just held my breath and jumped in.

"I'm taking an online course now. For a baby boomer, it's a little frightening [not being in a classroom]," adds Jackson, with a laugh.

Timing became right

Baby boomers are also a growing demographic at Felician College in Lodi, where Wendy Lin-Cook, dean of adult and graduate admission, estimates that a "good quarter" of the college's adult learners defined as 25 and over are in their 40s and 50s.

"We are well-known for our teacher education certification program, and we do get a lot of second- and third-career baby boomers who want to go into education," Lin-Cook says.

But psychology is what Hackensack native Barbara Ann Revel, 51, is pursuing at Felician two blocks from her Lodi home. A secretary at Englewood Hospital, where she's worked for 27 years, Revel hopes to get her degree in 2010, then go for a master's in psychology to ultimately become a therapist.

"I wanted to get an education my whole life. It was so important to me, but I didn't come from a family that could afford it," says Revel. "I walked into Felician College, and they accepted me. I cannot tell you the feeling that I get that I'm actually going to college."

Her happy postscript: "I'm on the dean's list."


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