Back to School: Discover Your Inner Late Bloomer

An older woman with glasses speaking with an older man at a library

“It is utterly false and cruelly arbitrary to put all the play and learning into childhood, all the work into middle age, and the regrets into old age.”

– Margaret Mead

Fortunately times have changed from when anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote these words. Today there are multiple choices for mature adults to put their thinking (and playing) caps back on and return to the stimulating environment of school.

In the GTHA (Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area) there are three major universities that offer unique learning experiences for older adults. They are: York University, Ryerson and McMaster.

At York, in north Toronto, in order to be eligible for a domestic tuition fee waiver, applicants must be Canadian citizens/permanent residents and 60 years of age or older by May 1 for the summer session or September 1 for the fall/winter session.  The tuition fee waiver for an eligible Canadian is restricted to a maximum of one undergraduate or graduate degree. That means that retirees are able to complete an entire Bachelor, Masters degree or even a doctorate for free.

In downtown Toronto, Ryerson University offers the LIFE Institute, a centre for Lifelong learning, leadership and personal growth opportunities for adults 50+. It’s an exciting place. The LIFE Institute delivers educational programs for older adults covering a wide variety of subjects in the Arts, Humanities, Sciences, Technology and Contemporary Issues.

Many of the LIFE Institutes’ courses are led by LIFE volunteers. These “facilitated courses” are an excellent opportunity for members who are seeking leadership opportunities to prepare and direct a course; class participants may also be asked to research and present a topic.  “Lecture courses” are also offered. These courses are delivered by a professor or acknowledged expert in the field. Lecture courses usually include a question and answer period, some discussion and may include a reading list. Courses are available every day of the week including weekends.

The opportunities for personal development at the LIFE institute go far beyond the course offerings and include clubs, walks, travel and events. The goal of the institute “is to offer exceptional educational experiences for older adults, regardless of their educational background or special needs. Every effort is made to accommodate members with physical or hearing difficulties.” Annual membership costs $80.00 and it includes a newsletter, social events, specific clubs such a LIFE Walks or LIFE Travel, and most importantly, access to Ryerson’s library, sports centre and cafeterias. LIFE courses are neither for credit nor towards a certificate. They are purely for enjoyment.

At McMaster University in Hamilton there are about 25,000 students, yet only 35 are older adults earning credits. That’s a situation the university is committed to change as it actively encourages more mature students to join its ranks.  The university hopes to see that number rise as it’s created a number of programs specifically tailored to the needs of that demographic.

McMaster is engaged in a study of 200 older adults, the findings of which will help the university to figure out what can be done to encourage retired Hamiltonians to enroll in courses. Easy access to classrooms, clear signage, easy-to-read maps of the campus and special events are among the changes that the university is considering to help these learners enjoy campus life. Currently, those 65 years of age or over (subject to meeting admissions and prerequisite requirements) may enroll in courses for credit without payment of tuition and supplementary fees.

While I was investigating the myriad opportunities for retirees to engage in lifelong learning, I couldn’t help but thinking about a new book by Rich Karlgaard titled Late Bloomers: the Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement. Arianna Huffington says that “Late Bloomers shines a much needed light on an essential human truth –that each one of us can realize our gifts and unlock our full potential, whether we’re an early achiever or a late bloomer. As he shows, life is not a race, it’s a journey.”

The book provides narratives of late bloomers:  folks who didn’t succeed as adolescents or young adults, often through no fault of their own. It’s usually tough circumstances at home that impede young people as they try to launch into full adulthood or what Karlgaard describes as the 21st century’s obsession with early bloomers.

He says, “Being seen as a potential late bloomer was once a mark of vitality, patience and pluck. Nowadays, more and more, it is seen as a defect (there must be a reason you started slowly after all) and a consolation prize. This is an awful trend since it diminishes the very things that make us human — our experience, our resilience, and our lifelong capacity to grow.”

Going back to school gives us all a chance to rewrite that script, to discover and grow the interests we may not have had the resolve or the time to explore when we were young.  Most of us are late bloomers in some way, leaving a certain part of ourselves behind as we forge through the relationship, parenting, career complexities of modernity.

Karlgaard describes a late bloomer in this way: “Simply put, a late bloomer is a person who fulfils their potential later than expected; they often have talents that aren’t visible to others initially. And they fulfill their potential frequently in novel and unexpected ways, surprising even those closest to them. They are not attempting to satisfy, with gritted teeth, the expectations of their parents or society, a false path that leads to burnout and brittleness, or even to depression and illness. Late bloomers are those who find their supreme destiny on their own schedule, in their own way.”

There’s no better place than school to discover your inner late bloomer. Crack a book, play a musical instrument, engage in deep discussions with others about intensely held shared interests. Chart the arc of your successes, including late starts along the way. Pick up the narrative you’ve always wished for yourself. Your inner late bloomer will thank you.

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