By Annalise Klingbeil
Following two “close escapes with death” 66-year-old Diane Morton started to think about how she wanted to live the rest of her life. And so, Morton sold her house, had a garage sale, packed her possessions into twelve Rubbermaid bins, moved in with friends, and registered for university.
“I decided I didn’t want to worry about money and having a lot of stuff in my life,” says Morton, a real-estate agent and independent wellness dealer.
“My belief is that the only thing we can take with us is our knowledge and our life experiences.”
Morton, who has six children and 14 grandchildren, heard the University of Calgary offered free tuition for students aged 65 and older. In September 2009, she attended her first day of classes, with the goal of working towards a degree in developmental studies.
“I love (University), I just love it,” says a smiling Morton, her face lighting up as she talks about her classes, professors and new friends.
Many universities across Canada offer free tuition for senior citizen students and some daring seniors, like Morton, are willing to register for classes, make friends, and pursue a degree.
At the University of Calgary, a school with more than 27,000 students enrolled in graduate, undergraduate and professional degree programs, there are only 57 students aged 65 and over registered in the winter 2010 semester. This number includes senior citizen students enrolled in full-time or part-time studies in undergraduate or graduate programs, as well as those auditing courses.
John Mueller, a retired professor with the University of Calgary’s applied psychology division says from his experience, it’s not often you find senior citizen students on campus.
While offering free tuition to senior citizen students is “a perfectly good idea on paper,” Mueller says there have not been very large numbers of students aged 65 plus enrolled in university.
“Campus is a funny place for people who are not young,” he explains.
“Campus is designed for young people (who have) four years to dedicate to it.”
Mueller believes the number of senior citizen students has grown in recent years, probably because today’s seniors are more educated than the seniors of previous generations.
“Two generations ago, the number of people aged 60 or 65 who had the foundation to start college was pretty limited because in those days it wasn’t always the case that people finished high school,” says Mueller.
Morton grew up on a ranch in southern Alberta and attended school in Warner, a village located approximately 65 km south of Lethbridge. She received her high school diploma in 1962, moved to Calgary and pursued hairdressing while upgrading her high school marks for entrance to university. Soon she was married and supporting her husband and family, and dreams of attending university were put on hold.
As an adult and mom, she eventually took classes at university, but a move across the country meant the classes stopped, until recently.
“I’ve always been a learner, but (my brushes with death) quickened my decision to just get to it,” she explains.
In 2008, Morton’s appendix ruptured and after a five day wait to get into the hospital the doctor who operated on her stated that it was a miracle she was alive.
“It was discovered that it had ruptured because it was cancerous, so I went in for surgery to correct that.”
The grandma of 14 endured an eight hour surgery to remove the cancer and today she is feeling healthy and loving her life as a student.
“I’m not afraid of dying,” she says. “But my concern is that I will not do as much as I could while I’m here alive.”
Morton received B’s in the two courses she took during her first semester and she has embraced the social aspect of campus life. The lively senior went dancing at the campus bar with her university friends and hosted a Christmas party for classmates.
“(Morton) had a very strong presence in the classroom,” explains Amy Badry, a classmate and one of the friends Morton went dancing with, “She’s very opinionated and interesting. It was a good balance in our classroom…she really added to the dynamic of the classroom.”
Nineteen-year-old Badry, a first-year developmental studies student, remembers meeting Morton for the first time in September and instantly being interested.
The two were in a tutorial class together and students were required to introduce themselves.
“She was one of the first people who introduced themselves. She told a little about herself and she had quite the interesting life story. I felt she really had something to teach everyone and we could learn a lot from her,” says Badry.
Badry, who lives away from home, has enjoyed “heart-to-hearts” with Morton, and sees her as a friend and motherly figure in her life.
“She’s very open-minded and she likes to listen. She’s open to what you think,” says Badry.
“She is very inspirational.”
Morton doesn’t mind being the oldest in her class and enjoys sharing stories with students decades younger than her.
“Being the oldest one in the class, even older than the professors, I’ve made friends with them and I’m happy to share and they appreciate that,” she explains.
Morton’s advice for other seniors considering university is to be excited and willing to put in time and hard work.
“You have to know it’s not going to be just a snap…There’s a whole new skill level,” says Morton, referring to embracing technology and using computers.
The 66-year-old says she hasn’t had any big challenges as a student, and by embracing school with enthusiasm and excitement she’s been able to accomplish everything she wants to.
“I think a lot of seniors are afraid,” Morton says referring to how few grey-haired students she’s seen on campus.
“Just go into it with this attitude of excitement,” she advises other seniors considering returning to the classroom.
“Learning is really just an adventure,” says Morton enthusiastically.
“And the only thing you take with you (when you leave), is what you’ve learned here.”
Thinking About Going Back to School?
A number of schools across Canada offer free or discounted tuition to students over the age of 65 including:
- University of Calgary
- University of Western Ontario
- University of British Columbia
- University of Lethbridge
- Mount Allison University
Discounted or free tuition programs tend to be very school-specific, thus the best step for seniors interested in attending university is to call the school’s enrolment services, registrar’s office, or check out their website.
Some schools, like the University of Western Ontario, offer a bursary for students, while others tender free tuition to all students who meet the age requirements. At UWO, students aged 60 and over who declare financial need, can apply for a bursary that will cover the cost of their learning. From the summer of 2008 to winter of 2009 academic term, 46 students received the Senior Citizen bursary.
The steps for enrolling in a university vary by school, but in most cases you need to submit an online or mail-in application by a specific deadline. At the University of Calgary, students applying for a degree program, like Morton, apply online and pay an application fee. Once their birth date is entered into the system and the registration process has begun, tuition is automatically adjusted.
For any school-specific information, give the university you’re interested in a call, or check out their website.
About The Author: Annalise Klingbeil is a freelance journalist and student at the University of Calgary.