Students over 50 hitting the books

More people over 50 are continuing their education at state schools.

Lake City Community College student Alex Benkoczy, 80, at right, discusses his research on an upcoming sculpture project with instructor Teresa Stoll at the end of class on Jan. 12. At far left is freshman Jordan Medley, 19.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, January 19, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 19, 2004 at 2:12 a.m.
LAKE CITY - Alex Benkoczy had to take time off from classes at Lake City Community College last November to make a quick trip to Jacksonville, and he had an excuse no one else had used before.
Benkoczy was being awarded a medal for his participation in World War II's Normandy invasion, which took place long before several faculty members were even born.
Blind in one eye, widowed and with his own children preparing to retire from their careers, Benkoczy, 80, went back to school a few years ago, unknowingly becoming part of an education trend.
"I came back to school because I don't want to watch the grass grow," said Benkoczy, retired from a career in architectural woodworking.
His move to continue his education is the same decision more people over age 50 are making each year at three local state schools. Admissions offices at Lake City and Santa Fe community colleges and the University of Florida have been watching a rise in the number of students who enroll for classes at a time when they are also eligible to enroll in AARP.
Although the numbers aren't large, the trend is recognizable, officials said. From 1999 to 2002, the over-50 fall enrollment at Santa Fe showed the biggest increase, growing from 280 to 375. Students over age 50, however, still make up less than 4 percent of the student body at all three schools.
Pat Grunder, vice president of innovation and college advancement at Santa Fe, said the increase in older-than-average students is being driven by several factors, including the rising age at which people can collect full Social Security benefits.
"We also know that as the work force creates new and different job opportunities, people are no longer staying in one career path for a lifetime," Grunder said.
All three schools reported that many of the older students have already completed a 25- or 30-year career but still want to work. They come back to school to pursue interests they developed over their lifetime.
Teresa Stoll, an art instructor at Lake City, said what the older students bring to class are attributes that younger students could use - "a focus that is sharper, a work ethic that is stronger and an identity that is clearer."
In Benkoczy's sculpture class, the World War II veteran shares a table with Jordan Medley, a 19-year-old woman who grew up in a world where almost every home had a microwave oven and at least one computer, inventions that did not reach the marketplace until the last third of Benkoczy's life.
"I didn't know what it would be like working with him, but it turned out kind of interesting," said Medley, whose personal style includes crayon-red hair, torn denim and various piercings. "We actually have some similarities, like politics."
School officials said the most common concern the older students have had was whether they would be able to keep up with the younger students. Those fears are generally unfounded, said Grunder.
"Students in this age group have more life experience, more patience in terms of meeting their objectives and tremendous direction and focus," Grunder said. "What they find - usually very soon after they begin taking classes - is that their dedication and passion about learning makes a tremendous contribution to the rest of the class."
Benkoczy, who is carrying 13 credits this semester, said his advice to other older students is that their brains need exercise and classes will provide it.
"You can revitalize your brain when you go back to school," Benkoczy said. "It's another one of those things that if you don't use it, you'll lose it."
Karen Voyles can be reached at (352) 486-5058 or voylesk@

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