Discovering new worlds
For UD's adult learners, education is lifelong
January 11, 2024
Growing up on a central Missouri farm, Jim Kerschen loved taking a blanket out to the cornfield at night and staring up at the stars.
“I had no idea which star was which, but it whetted my appetite to learn more,” Kerschen says. When he enrolled at the University of Missouri, though, he saw that a focus in chemistry would provide a more stable career path, so he put astronomy aside. Indeed, he went on to earn a master’s and a doctoral degree in chemistry, then enjoyed a successful 40-year career in that industry.
“It’s been a great ride,” said Kerschen, 70, “and now I want to return to my first love.”
This fall—as a first-year astronomy major at the University of Delaware—Kerschen is back in the classroom to pursue his passion. He is among the Delawareans who come to UD for an education when they’re retired or close to it. For those like Kerschen, that means taking for-credit courses—and doing all of the homework, term papers and final exams that come with them—in pursuit of a degree. UD’s Over 60 tuition benefit lets them take courses at no cost if there is space in the class and they meet the academic requirements, enrolling about 100 Delawareans annually.
Kerschen is now taking Calculus I and a couple of entry-level physics courses alongside classmates who weren’t even born when he was already more than halfway through his career.
I’ve always liked learning, and [college] wasn’t available to me as a young person." -Lucille Fagan
“I can’t tell you how exciting it is to hear about all of this cutting-edge research,” he says. “It gives me the shivers. I didn’t think that reading a few books and articles about astronomy was going to be enough for me. That’s why I’m going to charge ahead and see what a degree in astronomy can do.”
Jeff Illes, 66, used the Over 60 benefit to complete his bachelor’s degree in English in May 2023, an accomplishment that had been postponed since the mid-1970s as he built a career in sales. He is now enrolled as a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program.
“The benefit makes it possible for me to immerse myself in the courses,” Illes says, crediting family and friends for supporting his pursuit. “I was delightfully surprised that people were so accepting, and I didn’t feel out of place at all.”
When Lucille Fagan retired from the insurance industry a few years ago, UD’s Over 60 tuition benefit was one reason she moved to Delaware from Pennsylvania. At age 67, she’s now taking online classes to earn her associate in arts degree.
Learning is my hobby." -Rob McKennett
“I’ve always liked learning, and it wasn’t available to me as a young person,” says Fagan, who’d like to pursue a bachelor’s degree next but isn’t planning to return to full-time work. “It’s really for the love and challenge of learning. It’s just to get a degree and to say I’ve got it.”
That’s the question older students say they hear often: What are you going to do with your education? Everyone has a different answer. As a volunteer at Mount Cuba Astronomical Observatory, Kerschen wants to share his knowledge of the stars with others. Illes is writing mystery novels.
For some, UD courses provide a job-related education. Melissa Bordley, 66, earned her Paralegal Certificate—through UD’s Professional and Continuing Studies (PCS), which isn’t eligible for the Over 60 benefit—so she’d be more efficient and capable in her job at a civil law firm. Her criminal justice courses fascinated her, though, so she’s now considering a bachelor’s in that field.
“I’m only 66, so I can do four years,” she says.
Rob McKennett, 70, retired from the healthcare industry several years ago and is now earning a PCS certificate in Instructional Design, which is helping him develop the science courses he teaches at Delaware State University.
“Learning is my hobby,” says McKennett, who has three master’s degrees and has taken hundreds of courses over the years, mostly because they just interested him. “If I had enough time left in my life, I’d go back and get another master’s in the science of learning.”
Simply the joy of learning—and doing so with others—is what brings many older students to the classroom. That’s the motivation for the roughly 2,400 members of UD’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), who can teach or take course in everything from American art to thermodynamics and myriad other topics. UD’s program—offered online and in person in Wilmington, Dover, Lewes and Ocean View—is one of the largest among the 125 Osher institutes at colleges and universities nationwide.
“I’m a passionately curious individual,” says Claire Sullivan, 94, a long-time OLLI member who has taken or taught courses in a variety of topics, such as immigration, the Founding Fathers and recent Supreme Court decisions. “Ever since I could talk, I’ve always asked, ‘Why?’”
Helping students find answers is UD’s mission, no matter the age of the person asking the questions.