The Silver Boom: College at 50 and Beyond

Mar 14, 2013

Teresa Mahony graduated from URI at 80.
Credit Elisabeth Harrison

We continue our series on aging in Rhode Island with a look at the fastest growing student group at Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island: students 50 and older.

RIPR Education Reporter Elisabeth Harrison takes us to the RIC campus to find out why these students are returning to college, and what challenges they face when they get there.

At the Oasis office on the Rhode Island College campus, tutors speak in hushed tones as they work one on one with students who need a little extra help. Senior Sue Bothelo sits in the reception area, waiting for a session on physiological psychology.

College Student Sue Bothelo
Credit Elisabeth Harrison / RIPR

“No way around it, its biology,” Bothelo says, shaking her head. “You’re talking about neurons and action potentials, and it’s really hard.”

It’s also been a while since Bothelo last cracked open a biology textbook. She’s 50 years old, majoring in psychology, and part of a small but growing group of older students seeking Bachelors degrees in Rhode Island. Bothelo diffuses questions about her “senior” student status with typical good humor.

“Yeah I’m old,” She says, looking around at the other students in the office. “Shhh. Everybody doesn’t know.”

College student Donald Mangiarelli
Credit Elisabeth Harrison / RIPR

What Bothelo knows is that she can do better than a retail job at Toys “R” Us, where she worked for more than a decade. At a time in life when many of her peers are planning for retirement, she’s planning for a whole new career as a school psychologist. She calls this her “do-over.”

“I’m smart. It took me a long time to admit that,” explains Bothelo. “I wish when I was 20 I would have known it was okay to be smart, but now I’m really thankful my brain still works.”

The number of students at RIC who are 50 and older has grown by 35 percent over the last four years, faster than any other student group. Vice President for Academic Affairs, Ron Pitt, says that doesn’t surprise him. He calls this group “the squeeze generation.”

“That’s a group that is facing some real challenges. There have been studies showed recently that in this recession they have lost the greatest amount of income.” Pitt says, adding that they’re often taking care of elderly parents while in many cases, still taking care of children in their 20’s living at home.

Pitt says many Rhode Islanders in their fifties and older never went to college, but now find they need a degree to make a better living.

“Many of them have lost jobs from industries that are either changing greatly or disappearing, so they are really a group that needs to look at and is looking at other ways of retraining themselves and refreshing their skills and elevating themselves through education.”

The changing economy is part of what pushed Donald  Mangiarelli to enroll at RIC. He was working as a metal plating supervisor at a jewelry company when he lost his job in 2010. Already in his 60’s, he faced a decision about whether to retire.

“I was sitting there saying I don’t want to stay home, I want to do something with my life,” Mangiarelli recalls.  “I’ve had a lot of job offers but none suited me because they don’t want to pay anything, even as a plating supervisor, so I said why don’t I go to college and learn something.”

Taking advantage of the GI Bill, Mangiarelli signed up for all kinds of classes, to see what would interest him.

“Philosophy, math, literature, world history,” he says, ticking off the some of the courses he has taken. “I’m taking all my cores, all my electives trying to get those out of the way until I see what I really want to really go into”

Mangiarelli is leaning toward a major in anthropology, and maybe a minor in business, a subject he already knows from outside the classroom where he used to run a family grocery store. And while he seems to embrace his new role as an undeclared college sophomore,
he says it can be difficult being the only gray-haired student in the classroom.

“Couple times the first day of class they see me walking in, and they think I’m the professor.” He says. “I sit down with them and they look at me like what are you doing here. For some of them, that’s the old man in class.”

At the RIC dining hall, students hang out and grab a bite to eat between classes. Scanning the tables, it’s hard to find a grey hair anywhere. Freshman Steve Lizotte says he has seen some older students in a criminology class.

“You could just tell,” Lizotte says of the older students. “I mean, you know, they had grey hair, they were just older.”

Lizotte compains the older students monopolize discussion, but his friend, 19-year-old Terry Monteiro sees an upside.

“There’s this lady that I’ve actually been working with,” Monteiro says. “She was a police officer, and I look at her as an example, like I’m learning from her, so sometimes it does come in handy working with older people.”

Rhode Island College is not the only campus where older students are on the rise. At the University of Rhode Island, the number of students age 50 and older has gone up nearly 50 percent since 2009. The oldest graduate in recent memory finished her Bachelors degree at the age of 80.

Teresa Mahony, 82, urges other senior citizens to get Bachelor's degrees.
Credit Elisabeth Harrison

“Absolutely wanted to have a baccalaureate degree,” says Teresa Mahony as she looks at photos of her children on the wall of her Warwick home. “All the children had been to college and that was something I wanted for myself.”

Mahony says when she was growing up in Warwick, college was for boys, not for girls. She finished high school, got married and had 12 children.

“Six boys and six girls,” she says with a laugh, noting that she now has 34 grandchildren.

As she pours a cup of coffee in her kitchen, just across the field from the house she grew up in, Mahony says she always planned to get a college degree later in life. At 43 she earned an associates degree in nursing, and at 70 she went to the University of Rhode Island for a bachelors degree in history.

“I love history,” she says. “I love biographies, I love the history channel, oh my goodness yes, so it was a natural.”

Mahony took her time earning the bachelors degree, enrolling in one or two classes every semester. It took her 10 years to finish, but she says it was worth it.

“I would tell anyone right now that’s gonna retire, just keep going for more education, even if you have a 4-year college background. The stimulation of learning, the stimulation of being in an environment with younger people, you have your life experience to bring to them, and they will learn from you.

A few years out of college and now 82-years-old, Mahony says she’s done with school, but she continues to look for new challenges. She recently took up the piano, and she plans to play Carnegie Hall by the time she’s 100.

Click here for more stories from our series The Silver Boom: Aging in Rhode Island 

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