More senior citizen Gophers take advantage of University courses

Minnesota statute allows residents over 62 years old to take courses for free.

University student John Hartman poses for a portrait outside of Lind Hall on Thursday, Nov. 15. Hartman audits classes for free because he is a senior citizen, including an Nineteenth Century British Novel twice a week with his wife.

University student John Hartman poses for a portrait outside of Lind Hall on Thursday, Nov. 15. Hartman audits classes for free because he is a senior citizen, including an Nineteenth Century British Novel twice a week with his wife.

Megan Palmer

On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, married couple John Hartman and Michele Gersich can be seen walking through campus to their British literature class in Lind Hall. They carry backpacks, take classes and look like regular students — only older. Hartman and Gersich are two of 420 non-degree seeking students over the age of 62 taking University courses for free this semester. 

The University’s Senior Citizen Education Program allows Minnesota residents over the age of 62 to audit classes for free or for $10 per credit. The number of non-degree seeking SCEP students has risen sharply in the past two years, increasing from 315 students in 2016 to 420 students in 2018. 

The program has seen steady growth over the past few years as word of mouth among eligible students has spread. The program exists at state-funded higher education institutions in Minnesota because of a statute enacted in 1975.

Gersich first became aware of the program when talking to a neighbor about her experience auditing courses for free at the University. Hartman, who graduated with a master’s in electrical engineering from the University in 1979, worked as a software engineer until his retirement in January  2018. 

“My wife and I were looking for something to do together. We’re both fans of 19th Century literature, so we found a course in that,” Hartman said. “You know learning something new, I like doing that … it’s a good stretch to keep the brain active.” 

Hartman and Gersich have been involved in the University community for many years. They live in the Como neighborhood and Gersich worked at the Loring Pasta Bar back when it was a drugstore. Gersich said that she loves the proximity, and that she is always learning something from the younger students.

“I really get a lot of energy from young people,” Gersich said. “Young folks are just discovering everything, and I feel like I can learn something from them.”

Elaine Auyoung is a professor in the English department and teaches the course Hartman and Gersich are currently enrolled in. Auyoung said she enjoys having SCEP students in her courses because she appreciates the different perspectives they bring to class.

“Because literary texts often invite readers to draw on their own life experiences and emotional intelligence, older students always enrich our class discussions with a broader range of perspectives,” Auyoung said.

One SCEP student, Jim Struve, a Vietnam veteran who graduated from the University’s medical school in 1970, has been taking courses over the past three semesters because he said he wants to learn to write better and more creatively. 

“I’m learning something new each time. I’ve had to do some research, I’ve had to do some resource work, I’m using the computer more in a way that I’ve never used it before,” Struve said. “I’ve enjoyed my experiences at the U. I always felt that it’s been a great part of our heritage in Minnesota.” 

SCEP students also have an impact on campus. Julie Selander, Director of One Stop Student Services and University Veterans Services, said her staff has countless stories about SCEP students. 

One student is studying African and European history to better understand his own heritage, and plans to write a book on the topic, she said. Another SCEP student is in his eighties and taking a self defense class. Many others are taking upper level math courses, language courses and gardening, according to Selander. 

“Some of our students are widows, and they just love being in the classroom with the younger generation,” Selander said. “I think they have a lot to give back too. It creates a lot of diversity in the classroom, and I think it’s a unique dynamic to add into the classes.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated that the SCEP program is offered at all higher education institutions in Minnesota.