Senior citizens at Texas State prove there’s no age limit on learning

The university said about two dozen senior students enroll in their classes each year.

SAN MARCOS, Texas — At Texas State University in San Marcos, you may be surprised by the maturity of some students.

Ian Whitehead brings added wisdom to his anthropology class. At 78 years old, he’s closer in age to his professor than his classmates. 

Professor Angela VandenBroek considers it a plus.

“We study human experience, so having those different voices in the classroom makes it a lot more fun to have discussions when everyone comes in with something new. Ian, of course, has a wealth of experience to share,” VandenBroek said. “I think it’s fantastic. There’s no time that says it’s too late to learn things. If you’re interested and you want to learn, college is a great place to be.”

Whitehead is what you would call a lifelong learner.

“At this college? I’ve been here six years,” Whitehead said. “Prior to that, I was a student at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, which is where my wife was a professor.”

Whitehead said his wife’s position gave him the opportunity to continue his education. At first, he was taking classes just for fun to explore his interests. 

Before he knew it, the degree was nearly complete.

“Now I’m only one subject away from graduating,” Whitehead said.

He started his professional career in oil and gas before switching over to construction. Down the line, he opened his own construction company. When he’s not focused on the scientific study of humanity, he’s building houses.

“It’s a nice balance,” Whitehead said. “I love it!”

It’s through a state program that Whitehead is able to further his knowledge for free. Jayme Blaschke, the senior media relations manager at TSU, said about two dozen senior students enroll in their classes each year.

“It essentially allows adults 65 and older to attend up to six hours of courses,” Blaschke said. “That’s roughly equivalent to two classes per semester for no tuition fee.”

He calls the program a win-win for the university and its surrounding communities.  

“I’ve seen classes where you have nontraditional students in with traditional students, and you can almost get a mentorship. A lot of the older students will have some degree of college experience and a lot more life experience,” Blaschke said. “You see interesting, dynamic relationships build up between the younger students and the older students, especially when study groups and such are involved.”

Evolving interests, newfound passions

Jim Chestnut, a distance learner at TSU, said online access has made it easier for him to learn.

“I discovered the benefits of Texas State as an undergraduate. I came back to school after I had other careers. I graduated at the age of 65 with the BAAS degree, Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences,” Chestnut said.

Chestnut’s professional life has range, from television broadcaster to musician. He said this program at TSU allows him to pursue his curiosity.

“My first master’s is in interdisciplinary studies,” Chestnut said. “Now, I’m working on a degree in public health education and promotion, a second master’s.”

Chestnut said he’s going to minor in dementia and aging studies. He hopes to become a certified health education specialist, but he doesn’t plan to use his credentials professionally. 

He said this knowledge is for his benefit alone.

“My wife asked me similar questions,” Chestnut said. “She said, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And I said, ‘Two reasons: because I can and I want to have a good death.’ I want to go out looking forward instead of looking back. If one can maintain a childhood sense of curiosity, the brain can stay alive and function through a sense of the meaning of life.”

Chestnut and Whitehead have learned a lot through this program, including the secret to a long life, and one well-lived.

“Staying active, both physically and mentally,” Whitehead said. “At this stage, I have a happy balance of that and I’m very thankful for that. Very thankful.”

While many eager students can’t wait to move on to the next stage of their journey, they may be able to learn a thing or two from their peers who jumped at the opportunity to take a second lap around.

If you’re 65 years or older and want to learn more about the program offered at Texas State University, click here.

The statewide program is only offered at public universities that opt into it, which means it’s not available at private colleges like Trinity University or the University of the Incarnate Word. The public relations team at the University of Texas at San Antonio told KENS 5 they currently don’t participate in this program either.

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