- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2000

While many people think retirement is a time of leisure, many seniors today aren't ready to pack it up for a retirement community in Florida. Instead, they are heading to the classroom in search of knowledge and technology.

More and more retirees are enrolling in college courses, according to an AARP study. And while some seniors are pursuing a degree or certificate in a specialized field, some simply want more knowledge about different places, arts and languages.

Annette Norsman, director of the Retired Teachers Association of AARP, says a wide variety of people over age 50 find furthering their education vital to keeping themselves intellectually engaged in what's happening in the world.

"This totally contradicts the stereotype of a retired person doing nothing but going to the beach and playing golf," Mrs. Norsman says. "Quite a few seniors have a hunger for knowledge only education can offer them."

An AARP study released in July shows that seniors are quenching this thirst for knowledge not only by enrolling in college courses, but through extensive reading and exploring on the Internet.

"Although [seniors] are using the traditional setting of the classroom to learn, it is not the preferred method," she says. "Internet research and reading are the top two ways seniors are gaining their knowledge, as well as through one-on-one training with colleagues."

With learning about computer technology the top interest for many seniors, many colleges and universities, including George Mason University, have opened special departments to help seniors.

"Many people don't think seniors know how to use the Internet, but studies have shown that adults over the age of 50 have recently passed adults 18 to 20 years old signing up for the Internet services," Mrs. Norsman says. "And with many schools offering courses on line, learning possibilities are endless."

GMU's Learning and Retirement Institute, which offers various noncredit courses, including classes on foreign languages, Shakespearean plays, the Dead Sea Scrolls and brain research, gives interested seniors the chance to study and take classes they never had time for when they were training to enter the work force.

"These classes deal with life and also enhance the mind," says Ed Mentz, 65, a student and president of the Learning and Retirement Institute. "It's like going into a gourmet candy store and being able to choose anything you want."

Mr. Mentz, a retired engineer, trade associate and insurance agency owner, says he is in his "fourth lifetime," in which he is exploring his love of learning. He also says he is toying with the idea of coming out of retirement to pursue a part-time occupation.

"It really doesn't get any better than this," he says. "I am growing intellectually through these classes, and there isn't any homework or exams to worry about. And I am gaining knowledge about things I always wanted to know about."

Mr. Mentz, a Reston resident, has been taking classes at GMU for about 18 months and says more than 600 seniors are enrolled in courses at the Learning and Retirement Institute.

"It's a wonderful way to meet people and make new friends, and it's an enriching environment," he says. "I believe the learning environment adds to life expectancy. It keeps my brain in overdrive."

And while some seniors are going to classes as a supplement to their lives, some, such as Louise Holland, attend classes as a way of life.

Ms. Holland, 75, of McLean, bills herself as "a professional student" who has been attending school all her life. In the 1940s and 1950s, Ms. Holland says, she studied law to better understand contracts, and later, she studied accounting to help her father in his business.

"I have always found it necessary to take classes to master a subject or profession," the Northern Virginia Community College student says. "Things I didn't know about just kept popping up. And, to be a good and effective employee, I felt I needed to study and learn about them."

While she has been taking computer classes steadily for two years, she has branched beyond the high-tech. Last semester, Ms. Holland completed her qualifications for a fitness certificate. She will help manage NOVA's physical fitness facility at the school's Loudoun campus.

"I had worked with computers years ago and understood them," she says. "But when I tried to get back into using them, I had found computers had really went somewhere else and left me behind. So I decided to brush up on my computer skills."

Ms. Holland says she finds most people, especially employers, don't think senior citizens know anything about computers.

"They won't even give a senior a second look when it comes to hiring them for a computer job," she says, laughing. "But in my case, if they'd give me a chance, they might find out they've hired a whiz kid."

Through taking classes and constant research on the computer, Ms. Holland says she is simply doing what she was taught to do as a child.

"I come from the generation where intellectual curiosity was a part of growing up … things were constantly being invented and improved. And, in my family, learning was expected of us," she says. "We had teachers and professors in our family, and they were continuously seeking out better answers and advancing their education. I have always felt it was important to advance my mind and learn about what's going on in the world around me."

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