Gutsy senior citizen initiates discounted classes for the elderly at UC Berkeley Summer Sessions

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--Naomi Cavalier, 74, had big plans for the summer - taking classes at the University of California, Berkeley. But when came to campus to register, her enthusiasm faded.

The registration and class fees for the campus's annual Summer Sessions cost more than she, and many elders, could afford on a fixed income.

"I wanted to participate," she said, "but felt I was being denied."

Cavalier didn't give up.

She marched into the Summer Sessions office and asked director Gary Penders to make classes more affordable for seniors.

UC Berkeley's Summer Sessions, open to virtually anyone, are popular with the public because of their broad range of subject matter, top-notch instructors and convenient schedules. The summer schedule's busiest period begins this week.

Cavalier told Penders that many elderly people have an intense intellectual appetite and bring valuable wisdom, perspective and insight to the classroom.

Expecting a patronizing nod in response, she was pleasantly surprised when Penders said, "You're absolutely right. Let's see what we can do."

Thanks to Cavalier and Penders, people ages 55 and over now can audit as many Summer Sessions classes as they'd like for a flat fee of only $25 - a $300 savings over regular auditing fees. Seniors can choose from 160 designated courses and, with the instructor's permission, may attend the class each time it meets.

They can participate in discussions and ask questions but are not required to submit papers and take exams. They do not receive grades.

"Seniors are often the purest of scholars because they want to learn for the sake of learning, not for grades, credits or a degree," said Penders. "Because of this, faculty respond very well to having them in the classroom."

Penders said these older students aren't the only ones benefiting from improved access to Summer Sessions. Having elderly people in the classroom broadens and enriches the education of younger students, he said, and provides a valuable resource for instructors.

Imagine how much richer the discussions would be for courses like "Current Perspectives on Aging" or "U.S. History, 1941-1980," said Cavalier, if senior students were there to share their first-hand experiences.

"The interaction between young and old in the classroom is mutually pleasant," she said. "It's an opportunity for us to relate to each other in a way not available in other circumstances."

David Gan, 73, who recently purchased his senior audit card, said he often is approached in the classroom by younger students who ask about his life experiences and how they relate to the course work.

The 1956 Berkeley alumnus is planning to audit "Victorian Ghosts in the 20th Century" this summer. A retired public health microbiologist, he said he may have seen an apparition when he was young and wants to get more information.

Gan takes copious notes during class because, he said, " I don't retain the information as well as I used to." A sprightly man, Gan said he takes classes to help maintain his youthful energy.

"You have to always be learning or you'll die," he added.

Cavalier said her intellectual appetite, and that of other seniors, only increases with age. "Because we have less time left in our lives, but more time to indulge our curiosity," she said, "our desire to learn intensifies."

Her enthusiasm for the Summer Sessions audit program has led other seniors to campus. All the women in her coffee group, which meets weekly in Walnut Creek, have purchased audit cards. Brochures have been distributed to local libraries and senior centers.

Helping to create the senior audit program "has been a very important event in my life," said Cavalier. "Knowing that I contributed to the development of an opportunity that has opened up intellectual vistas for people like me is very satisfying."

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