UC Berkeley Education Opportunities for an Older Generation of Students

The age wave of Americans 50 and older has been sweeping across college campuses for both personal and professional reasons. After a lifetime of work, these older adults are now catching-up on missed educational opportunities. NewsHour Weekend special correspondent, Mike Cerre reports from Berkeley, California.

TRANSCRIPT

Hari Sreenivasan:

As America’s baby boomers age, their influence continues to reshape the economy, the labor force, infrastructure and institutions.

Some have called the demographic shift a “silver tsunami.”

And that shift is apparent in higher education as a new wave of older students return to college campuses in pursuit of new opportunities.

Special Correspondent Mike Cerre has our report.

This segment is part of our ongoing series: Chasing the Dream, Poverty, Justice and Economic Opportunity in America.

Mike Cerre:

Call it “the half century college plan.” It’s taken Jules Means all of her adult life to finally have the time and resources to earn her degree at the University of California, Berkeley at age 67.

Jules Means:

With Berkeley I got a full ride. And I’m so grateful for that because on a social security salary it’s almost impossible to afford the tuition.

 Mike Cerre:

Sometimes mistaken on campus as either a professor or a staff worker, she didn’t let her teenage pregnancy, early poverty in the San Francisco bay area, widowhood and a debilitating stroke in her 60’s cancel out her college dreams.

Jules Means:

Being a black girl trying to survive and in a world where there was a lot of racial tension for me I didn’t even think it was feasible for me to ever get to UC Berkeley.

Andy Barlow:

I was going through the roster and I was just calling up everybody’s names. And I came to hers and I said, “Jules”, and she immediately stopped me. And said, “no, it’s Miss Jules.”

Mike Cerre:

UC Berkeley sociology professor, Andy Barlow quickly discovered how much of an impact she would have on his class as Berkeley would have on her.

Andy Barlow:

She was somebody who shared with students a long history of her struggles and her resilience and inspired them. She was somebody who really was compassionate and caring for the other students in a way that made them feel very safe.

Teacher:

Does anyone know what Birmingham’s nickname was in the 60s?

Mike Cerre:

Her history class on social justice last year was more academic for her younger classmates. For Miss Jules it was more connecting the societal dots of her life story: working at age 15, raising four sons mostly on her own, and working her way up from a short order cook to a corporate executive assistant.

Jules Means:

I worked at Deloitte & Touche. I worked at McKesson corporation. I worked at Ernst & Young, LLP. It gives them opportunity to, if they never been around African-American people and they have this mindset that we’re taking drugs or you know we’re going to jails and all that kind of thing

Mike Cerre:

Getting one’s college degree in your 50s or 60s isn’t as nearly unique as it once was given the silver tsunami of the country’s age wave has reached academia and college campuses like this one at the University of California Berkeley are trying to stay abreast of this major demographic shift.

Carol Crist:

I do believe that Covid will accelerate the trend of older people returning to education. People have lost their jobs. The nature of work is changing.

Mike Cerre:

UC Berkeley chancellor, Carol Crist believes attracting older students should be part of a state university’s diversity efforts, to better reflect the changing society it serves.

Carol Crist:

Learning doesn’t stop when you’re twenty two. And many people have life choices that have kept them from going to university at the traditional age and so it’s extraordinarily important to enable them to bring all the richness and experience to our student body.

Mike Cerre:

Kelly Richeson started his career with the Ventura County fire department straight out of high school. He got accepted at UC Berkeley at age 56 after attending community college and wants to start a new career as a writer. He went to college for the first time at age 57 to become a counselor and writer. He thinks he’s a more serious student than many of his younger classmates just as he would have been as a teenager.

Kelly Richeson:

I saw these 18, 19 year old kids that were just putting in the motions to get through class, to get the grade and to move on to their next class, to get their degree and move on in their career. I devoured every tidbit of information I had here.

Jules Means:

Some of the kids came up and they said, ‘Miss Jules, hey, you want to go out with us?

We’re going to what they call it, turn it up.’ And I said, turn it up. What does that mean? They said, ‘we’re going to party, Miss Jules.’ And I said, while you kids are turning up, I’m gonna be turning it down reading my textbooks.

 Mike Cerre:

In addition to her campus job before Covid advising married students and veterans adjusting to campus life Miss Jules and Kelly Richeson belonged to a campus support group for older students called the O.W.L.S.

Jules Means:

OWLS stands for older, wiser learners. That’s what it stands for, and I don’t like that word ‘old,’ so I say mature.

Mike Cerre:

Since the Covid shutdown, they continue to meet weekly online to share problems and tips for coexisting with classmates younger than their children,

OWL Member:

Let’s face it. My brain does not work as well as it did when I was 20. So it’s imperative that I form these relationships with these younger students and come together in study groups.

Jules Means:

I’m going to ask you just one more question to see how you’re doing.

Mike Cerre:

Miss Jules used the Covid shutdown to home tutor her youngest son, Stephon, who is attending the same community college she started at. He and his older brother, Harrold, promised to go to college for the first time as well, if she was able to get into UC Berkeley.

Stephon Means:

She kind of puts, like, you know, quite a bit of pressure but I know she does it because, like, you know, she loves me and she just wants me to succeed in college and, you know, do really good in my life.

Jules Means:

I had a dream that this is what I wanted in my life.

Mike Cerre:

Miss Jules spent much of her life overcoming challenges, the most serious being a series of strokes in her 60’s that ended her working career.

Jules Means:

I was very depressed and almost didn’t have a will to live and I thought, what can I do with my life that I didn’t do rearing my boys? And the first thing that came to my mind was, Jules, go back to school, go back to school and do something and get a degree.

Mike Cerre:

 

Miss Jules got her sociology degree last year, with honors but is still waiting for a formal college graduation ceremony, which was cancelled once again this year due to Covid.

Jules Means:

I dreamt of walking across the stage with my family and friends all in the audience, just congratulating me on my achievement. I even had my announcements made and as you can see, it has the date. And when they closed the campus I cried several times, but I knew there was nothing no one can do.

Mike Cerre:

Miss Jules and her fellow O.W.L.S believe their life experiences give them a significant advantage over the younger students in one critical lesson: resilience.

Jules Means:

I’m happy, wonder why? I’m going to interview you now.

Mike Cerre:

Ok.

Jules Means:

Because I’m going to wear this gown. I’m going to wear it, and that’s because I got accepted into grad school. So I still am going to be able to use my cap and gown.