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Shades of Gray

School Days : A Wellspring of Ideas for Seniors With a Thirst for Knowledge

July 25, 1991| Agnes Herman | Agnes Herman is a writer, lecturer and retired social worker living in Lake San Marcos

How often have we heard the admonition, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks"?

Whether it refers to learning new ways, abandoning old hang-ups or changing a well-worn path to the grocery store, we have been taught to believe that, once we cross the mythical line into senior citizenship, learning and changing become insurmountable obstacles. Not so. Well-attended classes around North County attest to the robust curiosity and intellectual hunger of our "Shades of Gray" generation. We enroll in them with enthusiasm and excitement.

"There is no such thing as 'I can't learn,' " says Sarah Golub, who has spent 55 years going to school. Golub continues to study, not because she "can't get the hang of it," not because she cannot "find herself," not because there is "nothing better to do." Sarah goes to school because of her insatiable curiosity; she wants to learn about everything.

This friendly, enthusiastic 74-year old great-grandmother of seven has associate of arts degrees from Valley Junior College and Palomar College, and a bachelor's degree from San Diego State University.

She seems to have found the Fountain of Youth in a campus water cooler.

When Golub and her husband moved to North County in 1982, she informed him that she would return to school "only if there was a college around the corner." She had been taking courses in neighborhood schools since 1934.

Palomar College in San Marcos was only a stone's throw from her new home. Golub enrolled immediately, not working toward a degree, just taking courses that interested her. One day a counselor pointed out that she had accumulated enough credits for a second associate degree. That encouraged her to transfer to San Diego State University's satellite campus in San Marcos, where she earned her bachelor's degree.

Among the incentives for older citizens to continue the learning process is the "Over Sixty Waiver Program" offered by the state university system. It allows older students to study without paying the normal fees. One needs a high school diploma, previous college transcripts (if any) and the motivation to study. Courses can be taken for credit or audited.

Today, Golub is a dedicated student at the newly established Cal State San Marcos. Although she has never played a musical instrument, Golub is taking a course in harmony offered by the music department.

Golub said she studies in the middle of the night when there is nothing else waiting to be done, the phone does not ring and the house is quiet. She spoke with joy of working at 2 a.m. She frequently chooses classes offered early in the day, though, and her favorite hour for school is 9 a.m. The combination of late-night studying and early-morning classes has worked well for her.

Golub says her enthusiasm for college courses stems in part from the fact that her age offers her a view of instructors different from that younger students have.

"We do not have an adversarial relationship. Grades and degrees are not as vital to us as to the young," she said. "We can see the teacher's point of view, identify with it and not have to wage war."

Not everyone who enjoys learning need enroll in college, though.

The Older Adult Service and Information System, known as OASIS, is a national nonprofit organization designed for persons 55 and older. It offers cultural, educational and informational services with the goal of enriching the lives of older adults.

The OASIS program was started about nine years ago in St. Louis by Marilyn Mann, an educator. She was eager to provide enrichment classes for older adults. The first classes were held in a retirement home in St. Louis.

Marjorie May of the May Co. became enamored of the program and came up with the idea of operating it out of department store facilities. The setting offers two advantages: an abundance of parking space and the opportunity for older students to study with peers.

There are 25 OASIS centers in the United States, including one at North County Fair in Escondido.

Classes meet in rooms set aside in Robinson's department store in the shopping center. This OASIS center celebrated its first birthday in April. In 13 months of operation, it attracted 2,100 memberships, which are offered at no cost.

In the course of a day, 150 people come through the door to take classes. Some have been to college, others have not. Something is offered for everyone. Often, couples walk through the door together, then separately follow their individual interests.

Those attending classes come from throughout North County; a third from the Escondido area, a third from Rancho Bernardo-Poway and a third from the Oceanside area. Enthusiasm is high, and another facility is being considered for the lower coastal region.

Donna Pitts, director of OASIS in North County, has an excitement about the program that is contagious.

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