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Back to school, but for the degree, not just the fun

By Geraldine Fabrikant

School was out, and Jack Kaufmann, who teaches eighth- and ninth-grade Latin at the elite Hewitt School in Manhattan, was on his way to catch the train home to Westchester.

That’s hardly surprising, except that Kaufmann is 71 years old and has been teaching for only the past three years. For much of the past 32 years, the dapper, silver-haired Kaufmann was a partner at the law firm Dewey Ballantine.

“I really enjoyed it,” he said of his law career, chatting over a quick coffee before heading home. “But at a certain point, I felt that I didn’t need to keep practicing.”

So in 2002 Kaufmann, who had enough money to retire comfortably, left the firm and began taking college classes. First he took a class on Chaucer, then another on the “Divine Comedy” by Dante and still another called Heresy in the Medieval World. He found the work so fascinating it led to a master’s degree in classics (Latin and ancient Greek) at the City University of New York — and eventually to teaching jobs, first at the Browning School, then at Trevor Day and then at Hewitt.

Kaufman is hardly unique among his age group in his determination to do more than simply take some courses. Whether such retiree-students find auditing classes too passive, want to play a role in a second chosen field or just want to expand their knowledge, officials at graduate schools say it is now routine to count a sprinkling of them pursuing another degree.

Many people now live well beyond the conclusion of traditional careers.

“Half the children born since 2000 in the developed world are expected to live past 100,” said Marc Freedman, founder and chief executive of Encore.org, which helps baby boomers find second careers in fields like education, health and the environment. “We still have a life model that was designed for a three score and 10 life span. You work for three or four decades and then you get a balloon payment of leisure at the end. I don’t think you can just stretch and strain that 20th-century model.”

Not everyone looking for a new path is willing to take on the burden of a graduate degree.

“There is a difference between people who are intellectually curious and are going back to school again in part to see what it is like to be a student, and those who are willing to commit themselves to the rigors of a full graduate education,” said Andrea R. Solomon, senior associate dean for academic administration at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University. “I think the people who wind up applying to elite graduate programs are so disciplined already that they do quite well when they commit to one of our graduate programs.”

That seems true of Jane Holly DeBlois, who is working toward her Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Massachusetts and is hoping to become an assistant professor when she finishes.

“I am having the time of my life,” said DeBlois, who is in her early 60s and is halfway toward completing her degree. She is a graduate of Smith College and received her master’s in applied mathematics at Harvard before working for more than 25 years as a software engineer (the same general field as her late husband).

Now, she said, she is motivated mainly by intellectual curiosity. “I would like to teach as an assistant professor, because it has more stature in the academic community and affords more time to write,” she said.

Like others who go back to school with students much younger than they, her encounters with classmates were awkward at first.

“I felt they would not want to be friends,” she recalled. “Then I realized that if they are over 18, they can’t really tell how old I am.”

For some older students, a Ph.D. can be a long and elusive quest. George Westby, a 68-year-old physician who retired nearly seven years ago, fell in love with French literature around the same time he met and fell in love with his future wife, Chantal, in Paris 26 years ago; she did not speak English and he did not speak French. So, “I set out to learn the language and became infatuated with the literature,” he recalled.

In 1992, the couple moved to Bryn Mawr, Pa., where he completed his master’s at Bryn Mawr College in 2010 after four years of study. He was subsequently rejected for admission to the University of Pennsylvania’s Ph.D. program and is now at the City University of New York. His heart is set on teaching French literature, but whether he will get the degree is not clear.

“I am doing this as inexpensively as I can, but there may be a need to bring in income,” he said.

Westby commutes to Manhattan from Bryn Mawr once a week to attend City University, which is less expensive than Ivy League schools. To control costs, he stays overnight with one of his sons.

Whatever the challenges for older advanced-degree-seekers, their teachers are thrilled to have them.

“I find it enriching for me as a professor,” said Lauren Benton, dean of the graduate school of arts and science at New York University and a professor of history.

“These are people who want to learn more, or go back to a field they had loved when they were undergraduates,” she said. “The variety of motivations and interests is the hallmark. It is what makes master’s students fun to be around.”

New York Times News Service

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