PULLMAN, Wash. — Of the 3,000 students who will pick up their sheepskins from Washington State University May 9, none will take their walk with more purposeful strides than the 20 graduates beyond age 50.
This group of “senior seniors” and graduate students who now comprise 1 percent of the WSU statewide enrollment is a growing segment of university populations nationwide. Currently, 69 over-50 students are enrolled at WSU in Pullman, 11 in Spokane, 65 in Tri-Cities and 59 in Vancouver.
In Washington, already 15 percent of the population is of retirement age, according to the latest census. By the year 2025, 25 percent of the population is projected to be in this age group.
Today’s age 50-something college students say they have new careers to forge, research subjects to delve, more graduate studies to conquer, and other lifelong interests and postponed goals to pursue. Take, for instance:
Patty Smith from Spokane, 52, who will be hooded for her doctor of education in Pullman. She says the degree is a must for her last career decade if she wishes to achieve a tenure-track position at a university. Her 77-year-old mother has enjoyed coming to night classes with her, and using the story-telling tips from her daughter’s studies for her church group activities.
Eric Schmieman, 51, claims to be the only Graduate/Professional Student Association member who also is an AARP member at the same time! On a study leave from Battelle/PNNL in Richland, he achieved the pinnacle of scholarship as he receives his doctorate in environmental engineering. During his three years in Pullman, he conducted acclaimed research in bioremediation of chromium-contaminated soil.
Ernest Vodney of Richland, who graduates from WSU Tri-Cities branch campus with an MBA, joins his daughter, Angela Mohondro, who is picking up one too.
Barb Wood, a 65-year-old Tri-Cities grandmother, recently completed her MS in Biology researching the effect of melatonin, a hormone secreted by the pineal gland, in protecting our bodies’ cells from dying.
Husband-wife team Kathryn and Edward Casper, both in their 50s, are picking up their teaching certificates in English from WSU, having come here all the way from Florida to join their daughter and son-in-law in Pullman, who also are earning degrees this year.
Mary Remsing, 53, receives her social sciences degree at WSU Vancouver after a five-year effort. She calls herself a “displaced mom” after fledging five grown children and a husband through divorce. The education brings her a new lease on life and career. Also known as “Mom” to many 20-year-old fellow students, Remsing was active in the student organization and graduation planning. She now pursues a 10-year career in early childhood education.
Richard Leisy, Jerral Rhoads and Rodney Gilge — all engineers in their 50s — have earned WSU master’s in engineering management degrees; Leisy at the Boeing Company in Seattle, the others in Tri-Cities, where “downsizing” stimulates people to “upgrade” their qualifications, they say. Rhoads also applied the quality control and management techniques to his Knights of Columbus service organization.
Ann Shipley in Olympia and Pat Young and Linda Eiford from Mount Vernon earned their bachelor degrees through the Extended Degree Program, right from their own communities through distance learning technologies.
Senior citizens, age 60 and older, enrolled in Washington’s four-year public colleges number around 300 of the total 87,000 of all ages enrolled, says Dan Keller of the Higher Education Coordinating Board. “We expect to see an increase in this segment as the baby-boomers — now in the 45-55 age bracket — hit the scene.” Keller says he believes that seniors going to college has been, up to now, “more of an avocation than a real need.”
While higher education is optional for some, 49-year-old student Mike Fox, from Sitka, Alaska, doesn’t see his studies as a hobby.
“I came to WSU as a first-year architecture student this year after raising two kids and working construction for 25 years. Construction workers design features on the job all the time, but I decided to make it official, so (by age 54) I could start a design-and-build firm when I’m through. My idea is to build upper-end homes for the retiring baby-boomers when they roll over their healthy 401Ks.”
Other older WSU students are achieving a variety of goals. Jean Abrams, 70-something, frequently audits business classes at WSU Tri-Cities. Art McCurdy, 51, personnel officer from Albion, and Terry Gingerich, a retired Los Angeles police officer, are working towards doctoral degrees in political science. David Bollenback, 53, from Kansas, and Greg Graber, 52, from Pullman, are going for graduate degrees in anthropology. Earlier Extended Degree graduate Pat Warren of Aberdeen puts her social sciences degree to work through community volunteer work, teaching English to immigrants.
Other WSU bachelor’s degrees will go this month to 50-plussers Joan Pogue and Virginia Gray in psychology, both in Vancouver; Anita Flanagan in business, Benton City; Helen Popravak, humanities, Vancouver; Kathleen Werst, education, Pasco; Debra Baker and Kathleen Chamskas, general studies, Vancouver. Master’s degrees will go to Linda Floyd, in public administration, Tri-Cities; and Edwin Pickering in business administration, Vancouver.
WSU President Samuel Smith, himself in his late-50s, tips his hat to them all.