SENIOR CLASS: Back to School at 50+ for Income, Family, Community

SENIOR CLASS: Back to School at 50+ for Income, Family, Community

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Photo: Edna Nadel, 58, takes computer classes at Santa Fe Community College to kickstart her career, like many older workers and small-business entrepreneurs. (Deborah Martinez/KSFR)

First of two articles. Read Part 2 here.

SANTA FE, N.M.--While some Americans are slowing down after age 50, Edna Nadel prepares her homework at the computer tutoring center on the campus of Santa Fe Community College. But it hasn’t been easy to become tech savvy.

“For the first two weeks or a month of school it was overwhelming, overwhelming,” she stated. “I didn’t know how to do my homework in the computer, how to access anything.”

But she was determined to learn; and now in her final semester of classes, Nadel said she’s stimulated by the camaraderie she has developed with the younger students.

“This young kid asked, ‘Do you want to study with me,’ and I said okay. Then another one did. They have a different perspective because they’re younger and they tend to procrastinate.” Noting to them that sometimes they show up late, Nadel said, “I told them, we’re gonna meet at certain time and you have to be there.”

Going On After Tragedy

Nadel, 58, said she returned to school after so many years because she needed to work. “I already had a career. I had my own business, a daycare biz for 25 years.” She immigrated from the Philippines when she was 21, lived in Canada and then then Florida, before moving to New Mexico in 1996.

“Then something happened to me,” she went on. On a fall day in 2009, Nadel learned that her husband Mel went missing while on a hunting trip in the Santa Fe National Forest near Pecos. He still hasn’t been found.

She stressed, “But I survived--still standing, I made it through and decided to come back to school.”

Nadel reflected, “It’s not that I buried it,” she recalled as she teared up, “I only had two choices. I either go down or I will live through it. No choice--I had to go on for my daughter.”

Like her daughter, she became a college student. It’s a new chapter in her life to which she’s adapting quickly. For Edna’s new friend and study partner, Gina Young, who also returned to school as an older adult, Nadel is a mentor.

Gina declared, “She’s an inspiration -- she gets me to go farther than I would by myself. That’s how come I’m really happy that we’re study buddies.”

Nadel added, “We study and do the homework and solve the problems, and then when we get to class we are prepared, probably better than anybody.”

50+ Enrollment 30%

About 30 percent of the Santa Fe Community College’s student enrollment is made up of adults ages 50 and older, a figure that has held steady over several years, according to the college’s office of institutional research.

Across the United States, college enrollment has been dropping, although the number of people earning degrees is rebounding after slumping in the wake of the Great Recession. Data from the latest study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released in December shows that 38 percent of adults over age 24 completed college in 2010, a slight increase over 2009.

Once they get a job, if they choose to do that, Lisa Marsh Ryerson said older adults enrich the workplace for everyone.

Ryerson, executive director of the AARP Foundation, said communities need older adults to be more involved “for robust community health, in addition to the health and opportunity for individuals who are 50 and older and have so much passion, purpose, experience and skills.”

AARP has myriad supportive services for older adults, such as the Back to Work 50+ Program that helps low-income workers with training for jobs that are in high demand.

“Many want to continue working, many need to continue to work. So it’s very important for us that we’re working with employers and communities to increase the understanding of the value of older adult workers and intergenerational workplaces,” Ryerson said. She added the AARP Foundation designed their Back to Work 50+ and other programs to provide older adults opportunities to continue learning, training and “reskilling” so they can to remain in the workforce.

Program Is  “a Godsend”

Nadel said the Back to Work 50+ program and scholarships strengthened her resolve: “It’s a Godsend, and I was lucky.”

She’ll graduate in May with an associate’s degree in accounting and she isn’t stopping there. Nadel’s interest in Photoshop and media arts has her poised to pursue another degree so that she and her friend Gina can start a new business.

Nadel continued, “After this I will do another class, maybe me and Gina will get a Media Arts certificate. I want to do the digital photography – the Photoshop and web design, and maybe we can do something online -- yeah, web design online.”

That motivation to continue to contribute to her community is music to Lisa Marsh Ryerson’s ears. She stressed that for many older adults connections to their work communities are vitally important, as is “our sense of ourselves and our ability to provide for our families, for ourselves.”

Deborah Martinez produced this series for KSFR public radio in Santa Fe, N.M., with support from a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerentological Society of America and the Commonwealth Fund.