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Students Share Experiences Across the Ages

Tuition is free at Pomona College -- for some auditing senior citizens. Professors find the older students can bring real life to the course work.

March 26, 2003|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

Stephen Zetterberg can't seem to say goodbye to Pomona College.

He earned a bachelor's degree from the liberal arts school 65 years ago, but returned to campus early in the 1970s to audit courses, and has stuck with it ever since.

"I never got to take all of the classes I wanted to take when I was in college," explained Zetterberg, who at 86 still practices law in Claremont, on the outskirts of the Pomona campus. "I'm sometimes amazed at the amount of ignorance I have."

Although Zetterberg's tenure as a Pomona student is apparently unrivaled, he is no oddity on campus. In fact, Pomona this year formally launched a program for senior citizens in Claremont that encourages them to audit classes as Zetterberg and a smattering of other older college graduates have done with the college's permission for years.

The program is free for residents of Claremont age 60 and older. About 40 professors have agreed to accept the students into their classrooms, as long as there is room.

Various colleges around the country offer classes, such as extension courses, aimed at senior citizens and other adults who are not regular college students. But Pomona's new auditor program is one of the few bringing undergraduates and older students together in the classroom.

In Pomona classrooms, it's not uncommon to see 20-year-olds wearing flip-flops sitting next to septuagenarians and octogenarians in sensible shoes. Zetterberg exchanges comments in class with students younger than two of his grandchildren.

"It only takes two or three sessions before all the class treats you just as a member of the class and they call you by your first name," he said.

Some of the more than 20 older auditors on campus this semester -- a small but noticeable group at a college with only 1,550 undergraduate students -- have had distinguished careers. For example, Zetterberg earned his law degree at Yale and twice ran, unsuccessfully, as a Democratic candidate for Congress. The winner in his first contest, in 1948, was Richard Nixon.

Another longtime Pomona auditor, Kalman Bloch, 89, was principal clarinetist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for four decades.

"It takes maybe a certain sort of person who has the wherewithal, interest, gumption and courage to go back to a setting of college kids," said John E. Seery, chairman of Pomona's politics department and an expert in political theory.

Seery accepted auditors into his classes even before the formal program for Claremont senior citizens began. He embraced the idea after working with older students at a short summer program that Pomona offered its alumni, including many in their 70s and 80s.

"I thought I would be baby-sitting grandma, and instead ... it was an invigorating, enlivening, eye-opening experience. I had folks 80 years old taking copious notes who would run to the library to track down citations during lunch breaks and who continued to correspond with me on scholarly projects," Seery said.

Seery said one of his auditors last semester in a classical political theory class "re-inspired me in the art of teaching." Seery said the auditor came to him after a class and declared, "I am loving this."

"We professors, we teachers, we have our moments when we wonder if it's sinking in, and I don't think an 18-year-old student can give that feedback without feeling that he or she is ingratiating."

That same auditor, Seery said, brought to life a class discussion about group solidarity and its ability to spur people to fight against an enemy.

Seery tried to kick off a debate by asking how many students would volunteer to fight to defend this country -- and not one of the undergraduates raised a hand.

The auditor then said he had volunteered as a teenager to fight in World War II, adding that he "would have ridden a bomb down to the ground, if they asked me to."

The comment, Seery said, "triggered the kind of political discussion that I'm not sure I could have done just by talking theory."

Students at Pomona, where small classes with lots of discussion are the norm, appear to share Seery's assessment of the value of auditors.

"They bring real-life experiences to many of the subjects we're talking about," said An-Yen Hu, a junior majoring in economics and politics.

As an example, Hu cited a discussion in a "Race in the U.S. Economy" class he took last semester. The conversation focused on the costs that Southern institutions and individuals once were willing to pay to maintain segregation.

At that point, an auditor in the class, a black woman named Mary Ida Gardner, told how the state of Georgia, to maintain segregation, paid her way to attend Columbia University in New York in the 1950s.

She wanted to pursue a master's degree in music education, and there were no black universities in the state offering such a program.

So Georgia officials sent Gardner to Columbia to keep her from enrolling at the University of Georgia or another white school in the state.

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