It's never too late for learning

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McGill Reporter
January 25, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 09
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > January 25, 2001 > It's never too late for learning

It's never too late for learning

Returning to class five decades after graduating from high school wasn't something Barney Grosser imagined possible in his senior years. Not, that is, until reading in The Gazette about an 85-year-old man who graduated from a local university a dozen years ago.

"When I saw that story I said, 'That's it! I'm going back to school too," recalls Grosser, now 78, who enrolled as a McGill undergraduate in 1988. "Before reading that story, I had no idea universities even admitted older students."

Grosser knew, however, that he didn't want to remain idle after spending nearly 50 years as a bookkeeper and accountant.

Photo Mature student Barney Grosser, currently completing a master's thesis in History.
PHOTO: Owen Egan

"I've seen too many people my age retire with nothing to do and I wasn't going to allow that to happen," he says.

He certainly didn't. Easing back into academia by taking an average of two courses per semester, Grosser obtained his very first university degree from the Department of History in 1996. Since then, he's been actively working on his history thesis and hopes to graduate with an MA this spring.

It's a feat Grosser is proud of. "Just knowing that I could come back to school after all these years and obtain my degree is quite an accomplishment," he says. "At least I didn't sit back and do nothing, which is rewarding."

Then again, hitting the books again isn't a challenge most senior citizens take on. Nor are the majority of McGill's re-entry students retirees. But they, along with a host of mature students of all ages, are free to enroll at the University. Grosser is just one example of some three dozen mature students who graduate from McGill each year.

How McGill and its sister institutions distinguish mature or re-entry students from regular students is through one of several criteria: Mature applicants must be 23 years old or older; have been out of school for several years; be parents; or have been actively employed prior to their university application.

To gain university admittance, a mature student must also have graduated from high school, since CEGEP certification isn't a prerequisite. That's not to say, however, that re-entry students don't return to academia with undergraduate degrees, master's degrees or even doctorates.

That was the case for Katy Rouhi, 31, who took up physics at McGill last fall, having practiced medicine in her native Iran for three years. Currently in her second year at the University, Rouhi is pondering another vocational switch to biomedical engineering next semester.

"That way I'll be able to use my previous medical knowledge, since nothing I learned as a doctor is directly applicable in physics," she says.

Rouhi realized years ago that being a doctor wasn't what she wanted out of life. "I wasn't suited for that type of work," she explains, noting she empathized too much with her patients.

Given that she worked in refugee camps in the volatile Kurdistan province, ministering to casualties of the Gulf War, her lack of detachment only increased. "It was a crazy time and being a doctor wasn't what I wanted to do."

While Rouhi acknowledges she could have found a more tranquil place to practice, her heart was nevertheless set on studying physics at McGill.

"It was still a very tough decision," she stresses. "Even now, it's hard to believe I spent 10 years studying medicine, some of the best years of my youth, all to give it up."

What's infused her with the will to pursue another profession, Rouhi says, is her curiosity for physics and love of learning. "The motivation to study must be incredibly strong to endure the hardships that come with being a student again," she says.

True, being a student at the best of times can be difficult. Furthermore, the situation somehow seems harder for mature students, says Associate Dean of Students Rhonda Amsel. "Mature students often have other responsibilities, including families or full time jobs in some cases, which must make time management an enormous challenge for them."

Rouhi says she's thankful she has neither children nor a job to juggle. Like many of her peers, her main problem is decreased income that resulted from leaving the workforce. She currently survives off loans, bursaries, family stipends and part-time work that's included tutoring teenagers in math and physics.

All told, a radical cut from her prior standard of living. "Having faith in myself, believing in my abilities and hoping for a better future are what keep me hanging on," she confides.

First-year law student Helena Plecko shares a similar perspective. Before coming to McGill to study law, the 32-year-old worked as a language interpreter for six years in war-torn Bosnia, after obtaining a BA in modern languages. Not even her proficiency in the field -- she speaks English, German, French, Italian, Croatian and French -- could quell her passion for law.

"Since undertaking my law degree at McGill," she says, "I've realized that this is exactly where I'm supposed to be."

That's not to say her honeymoon with the subject has made returning to school any easier. Her situation is further complicated by the fact that her husband, Mladen Plecko, is concurrently enrolled at McGill to complete an MBA. "Although we saved up before deciding to come back to school," she says, "we don't work or have any income [besides loans] and we're experiencing a completely different lifestyle from when we were working."

So why not return to university separately to soften the budget blow? "Because returning to school at the same time made sense," she explains. "It means we have the same concerns and worries. We also have the same vacation periods."

Yet, as the outgoing president of the Mature & Re-Entry Students' Association, Plecko admits her situation is unique. "Most people who are married have a spouse who works," she says, reflecting on the MRESA, which counts 35 members whose median age is 36.5 and average annual income about $28,730.

Even though Plecko could easily find part time work as a translator, working is not an option. "With seven courses this semester," she says, "it's not realistic to work."

Of course, the brunt of transition for mature students isn't only financial. Even with a keen desire to attend university, Grosser says, the experience can be daunting.

"I was afraid of just stepping into class on my first day," he says, recalling a fear of the unknown and of drowning in a sea of young faces. "But a professor in the hallway asked me, 'What have you got to lose? Try one lecture and if you don't like it, you don't have to come back."

Grosser took the advice and adds that the instructor, the late John Bullen, turned out to be his professor and helped him understand he was welcome at McGill. "He had an ability to make everyone feel the same," he says. "Whether they were over 60 or 17."

There were other challenges that Grosser experienced that were, perhaps, more typical of mature students. "I'd never written an essay in my life before coming to McGill," he says, "and exams always frightened me."

Plecko too, despite having a university degree, faced similar pressures. "I couldn't remember how to write a coherent paper," she says.

Thankfully, for students who need study-skill refreshers, McGill Student Services provides free workshops designed to polish those very skills. Available in the fall and winter semesters, the workshops offer students some advice on note-taking, essay-writing and examination skills. "These workshops are open to all students who feel they need a little boost," says Amsel.

Other potential integration problems mature students can face, by virtue of their age, is meshing with their classmates. That's why many of these students join the Mature and Re-Entry Students' Association (MRSA), which organizes events and operates a student lounge where members can get together. "The MRSA is very much a support network," says Plecko.

Rouhi, an MRSA member, agrees the organization is essential. "No matter how well you integrate, as a re-entry student, your social life will always be different from younger students," she says, noting age gaps translate into differing life experiences.

"You need contact with people who share similar interests like ABBA, for example, which was blooming when we were teens."

Rouhi cautions that mixing with the rest of the student body is also important, a task made simpler by her easy disposition. "Once you make that first step to approach other students, they'll see you're not an alien," she says.

Far more jarring than adjusting to age differences, says Plecko, is making the transition from the workforce. In her case, she had her own company, was her own boss and was years away from experiencing the unique time pressures of university life. "Being pressed into that kind of schedule again can be weird," she says.

On the flip side, Rouhi finds returning to class a welcome break from holding a steady job. "When you're in the workforce, your life can become mundane," she says. "Whereas being in school is always a challenge, like when you do well in a tough course, it's one hell of a reward."

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