For many years, Tom Anderson of Woodbury sent off his 11-year-old granddaughter, Mackenzie, to school with a simple directive to go forth and learn.
This fall, on her first day of junior high, the preteen got a chance to give her grandpa the same advice. After the two posed for a “back to school” photo, backpacks slung over both of their shoulders, she turned to him, smiled and repeated his advice: “Come back smarter!”
And with that, the 67-year-old was off to his first college classes as a retiree — a fiction writing and a history course at the University of Minnesota.
Anderson is one of more than 500 students taking classes through the U’s Senior Citizen Education Program, part of a state statute that applies to all state-supported colleges and universities across Minnesota. The law allows residents 62 and older to audit classes for free or take them for credit at $10 a credit.
The program has proved more popular in recent years, said Julie Selander, a director for student services at the U.
“I think a lot of the [seniors] are looking for another challenge in life,” Selander said.
The majority of senior students are enrolled in nondegree programs, opting to take a variety of courses that appeal to them — everything from biology to ceramics.
“I feel there’s a lot to be learned from both sides,” Selander said. “One of the values of attending this institution is to have an experience with a diverse sense of individuals ... This program can add so much to the dynamic of a classroom.”
Anderson knows that compared to most of his peers in his nonfiction writing class, he has decades more life experience to draw from for his writing assignments.
Still, he often finds himself holding back from in-class discussions, choosing to listen to their ideas and concerns. “I’m not here for the same reasons everybody else is here for,” Anderson said. “I don’t need a degree. I just want to learn.”
“He’s pretty reserved,” said Payton Faber, a 20-year-old classmate. “You can tell he’s taking it all in like a sponge.”
After graduating from high school, Anderson attended two years of college in Michigan in the 1970s. He picked up some college classes in the 1980s and then completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees through Augsburg University in the 1990s.
The biggest difference between then and now?
“Technology — for better or worse,” Anderson said. When he first came to campus for a fiction and history class last semester, he was struck by how quiet it was.
“If [young students] did want a word of wisdom from the grandpa on campus, it would be to put the phone down and actually talk to someone,” he said.
For David Mutch, a 68-year-old taking classes at Minnesota State University, Mankato, the amount of classwork that requires being online came as a surprise.
He often arrives early to his civilization class to get his favorite seat. He’s noticed that he’s one of only a handful of students taking notes with pen and paper. Most open up their laptops.
Mutch looks for late-morning classes; that way, he doesn’t have to get up too early, but can also make plans for his afternoons.
Like Anderson, Mutch isn’t back on campus to ponder how times have changed. After 46 years as owner of a hardware store in North Mankato, Mutch retired in 2012. By January 2013, he was enrolled in a college film studies class.
“I just thought it sounded interesting,” he said, something he repeats for each of the 11 courses he’s taken since, mostly in history. “As long as they keep offering something interesting to me, I’ll keep going.”
He’d like to find an art history or art appreciation class in the coming semesters.
“There are people who think it’s amazing that I went back for these classes,” Mutch said. “But I don’t think it’s odd.”
Some people take up ice fishing or hunting in retirement, he said. He opted for textbooks and lectures.
Anderson shares that sentiment. When first enrolled in the program last semester, he was aiming for a master’s degree in history. He now wants to try more writing courses, maybe even guitar lessons. And he’s looking forward to completing an online class.
In his 36 years working for 3M, Anderson said his writing usually had to be approved by a lawyer or accountant.
“Writing creatively is a whole new thing for me,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
He relies on his wife and friends to edit his work before turning it in. Even so, they often can’t anticipate the kind of feedback he’ll get from his younger peers. In a recent workshop of his nonfiction essay, one student commented on the “folksy tone” of Anderson’s piece about his yearslong journey to become healthier and eventually run a marathon. The scenes on the first few pages happened back when most of the students in the class were still in elementary school.
“You’ve lived this long life,” one student said before encouraging Anderson to add more details and examples to further the themes in his writing.
Faber said Anderson’s essay differed from a lot of the other work turned in.
“It was more of a reflection of several events and moments over the years — that’s something I can’t really do in quite the same way at this point in my life,” she said. “He didn’t write it to impress us or mentor us. He never has the attitude, ‘Oh, you’ll get it when you’re older.’ He really sees himself as an equal and I like that.”
Anderson is quick to point out that the students around him also have a host of meaningful life experiences that make for effective and powerful writing.
“I tend to sit back and listen to them, just to see where the future is going,” he said. “Sometimes I do think ‘we are in good hands.’ “I’m here to learn the way that they are learning,” he said. “It’s their place and their time and I’m sort of a guest student.”
Still, he would like to see growing support, and recruitment, of more students his age. Anderson noted that there is no student organization for those in the senior citizen education program, nor is there specific representation on the Student Senate.
“I’m not sure the University does a good job of telling people that we are here,” he said. “If you are 18 and an incoming freshman, no one warns you that a guy older than your grandpa could be in class with you.”
Once he does get his peers talking, though, Anderson said it’s often easy to build rapport. He’s even taken a job as an usher at the U’s Northrop auditorium where he’s built friendships with fellow student workers 45 years his junior.
There, guests talk to his co-workers about their studies and then turn to him, not quite knowing what to ask.
“That’s when the [co-worker] just blurts out, ‘Yep, he’s a student too,’ ” Anderson said. Damian Johansson, a creative writing instructor at the U, said he also wants to hear more of those intergenerational conversations.
“I wish I had a senior student in every one of my classes,” he said. However, Johansson understands some of the reticence those students have in speaking up in class, particularly about works of nonfiction they think may be far from relatable for them.
“It’s interesting because, so often, the students do have similar experiences. They are just from different generations,” he said.
For Anderson, finding those commonalities doesn’t necessarily make him feel younger, he said. But he said it’s satisfying to join his fellow retirees for coffee and get to refer to himself as the “college kid.” As they talk about the golf and bingo games that fill their free time, he gets to tell them about heated classroom discussions that range from a writer’s intention to students’ favorite orders at Five Guys.
“People always talk about active older adults and there’s a picture of grandma and grandpa out for a walk or on a bike. But you never see them in the classroom.
“That should be just as important.”