Above: Roger Depuy, left, and Peter Kruszka get ready for their college class on the campus of Kennesaw State University. Photo by Joe Earle
Peter Kruszka wanted to earn a college degree when he was younger, but, well, sometimes plans change.
After graduating from high school in New York back in the 1960s, Kruszka went straight to work. He later joined the Navy, got married, raised a family and had a career working with computers. Along the way, he picked up college courses at a half dozen different schools, but never had the time to collect enough credits to earn a diploma.
“I’ve been trying to finish this undergraduate degree for 40 years…,” the 67-year-old said. “Life keeps getting in the way.”
No more. This fall, Kruszka is back in class at Kennesaw State University to wrap up the final college credits he needs to earn his bachelor’s degree.
“It was a lifelong objective I never realized, and now, it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something,” he said. “I’ll have a bachelor’s degree. … and I’ve been trying to accomplish this for 40 years. It’s like, ‘Yes! I finally did it.’”
He’s not the only one. As college campuses across Georgia spring back to life this fall with the start of a new school year, students in their 60s, 70s and older can be expected to show up in class. They’re giving a new meaning to the term “college seniors.”
Many will attend tuition free. The state of Georgia waives the cost of tuition (but not the cost of books or fees) for Georgia residents aged 62 and older who take classes at state colleges and universities (not, however, in dental, medical, veterinary or law schools). The university system says more than 1,100 people used the waivers during the 2018 spring semester.
“An older person who does not take advantage of that, you’re leaving money on the table,” said Roger DePuy, who’s 77 and who graduated from Kennesaw State in 2016 with a long-sought-after bachelor’s degree. That degree was in integrated studies. Now he’s heading back for a second bachelor’s degree, this time in political science.
DePuy said he had started his studies in 1958 at a community college, but never completed a four-year degree. “Life happens,” he said. “I had to drop out of school, had to get a job and support a family.”
After a career with IBM and other companies, he retired in 2012. “I didn’t need a degree, but there was always something hanging out there,” he said. “[After retirement] my wife said, ‘You ought to be doing something.’ Then I found out I could go to school for nothing. I just had to pay for books.”
He tried a few courses to see whether he liked it. He did. And when he took a course taught by former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, he was hooked.
Not every older student who goes back to school is doing it just for the fun of it. Trudy Duncan, who’s 58 and lives in Stockbridge, started attending private college classes because she wanted a new career.
She’d attended business school when she was younger and had worked since the 1980s as a legal secretary. But, she said, she wanted to do more with people. This fall, she said, she plans to study for a graduate degree at Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. Eventually, she hopes to find work as a counselor.
“Sometimes you don’t know what your true passion is,” she said. “I found out my passion is helping people. My desire is to help people live a better life.”
Lois McCoy started classes at Oglethorpe University in 2015 “just for my personal advancement.” She’d completed high school in Detroit and went to secretarial school. “I came from a large family,” the 65-year-old said. “There was no money [for college]. I went right to work as a secretary. I got married, had children.”
She encouraged her children to attend college, she said, but, “as far as my personal achievement, it was something I wanted years ago, but I didn’t do, because of life happening.” But, she said, “it’s never too late.”
McCoy graduated from Oglethorpe in May with a degree in communications. “I’m very happy about it,” she said. “It’s something I wanted to achieve all these years. It’s something my parents wanted.”
Being the older student in class didn’t bother her, although she there were times she had to ask her younger classmates to explain current pop culture references that turned up in a lesson. “It helped me stay on my toes,” she said.
Many college professors like having older students in their classes because they bring a sense of seriousness to their studies and improve decorum in the classroom, said Kokila Ravi, director of online learning and specialized programs at Atlanta Metropolitan State College. “Their just being there makes a difference,” she said.
Ravi said that older students often appreciate the value of an education more than their younger classmates. “Older students, because they’ve been through life, they can tell students how relevant this is going to be,” Ravi said. “We believe their just being there adds value to class. Younger students understand that if a person over 60 is coming back to class, there must be something in this.”
Also, older students often appear more focused on learning than younger ones, she said. “They are always in the front row,” Ravi said. “They are never in the back. And they are so eager. Their lives revolve around the schoolwork. They are always ready for class. All they are talking about is schoolwork.”
Plus, they bring their life experience to class. “I believe strongly that students learn from each other,” Ravi said. “I believe adult learns bring a lot to the classroom.”
Kennesaw State student Elena Jordan, who’s 63, sees the same thing in her classes. “I think our presence is a true enhancement of the learning environment,” she said. “The kids are great, but I think we add a little spice.”
Jordan says she’s working on her fourth degree. She graduated in the 1970s with a bachelor’s degree and a major in music, she said, then earned master’s degrees in computer science and business administration. She decided to go back to study Spanish, she said, after she tried learning the language by listening to tapes during her daily commute and decided she preferred learning in a classroom.
The biggest downside she sees for older students? All the sitting around required when in class or doing homework.
Kruszka saw that returning to college as a retiree meant diving into the hard work of college studies. And campus life for the older set wasn’t the zany good times pictured in some back-to-college movies. No frat parties or wild nights out. “This is not a Rodney Dangerfield situation,” he said. That was OK with him, though. “That’s not my style.”
At 71, Olyn Gee, a freshly minted University of Georgia graduate, finds college keeps him engaged as he ages. “If you’re a senior, you feel like you’re wasting your time,” he said. “[Attending college] is a great way to feel part of the community.”
Gee said he spent much of his life in metro Atlanta and worked at a variety of jobs, ranging from sales to taking wedding photos. So many young couples had their portraits taken at the UGA campus, he said, that he ended up spending a lot of time in Athens. Eventually, he and his wife moved to the Athens area.
When Gee found out that he could attend classes at UGA without paying tuition because of his age, he enrolled in a few. He liked them, so he kept going back for more. “You learn so much that you never knew,” he said. “Any course you take just opens your eyes up.”
Eventually, he had accumulated so many class credits that he was considered a college junior. He decided to start taking the science, math and language courses he needed to fulfill the requirements for a degree. Gee graduated from UGA in May with a bachelor’s in political science. Completing his degree took 7 ½ years, he said.
He plans to go back for more. “It’s free and it keeps you young,” he said.
At Kennesaw, soon-to-be graduate Kruszka already is considering going back for more studies, too. After he gets his diploma, he thinks he might keep going to class.
But for now, he’s thinking about what he should give himself as a graduation present to celebrate finally getting his degree.
After all, he said, the simple act of getting older shouldn’t slow you down. “We can’t stop just because the clock is moving on,” he said. “You’ve got to keep moving. I really believe that.”