Senior citizen students go to the head of class

Outside Gelman Library every Tuesday afternoon, students gather for Professor Peter Rollberg’s Russian cinema class. The scene is familiar.

On a bench, a girl with red lipstick, hair looped back over one ear smokes a cigarette while her boyfriend spins a skateboard at his feet. Several students wearing turtleneck sweaters talk to girls decked out in all black.

Fred Flatow, an elderly gentleman with a heavy bookbag slung over his right shoulder, makes his way to Rollberg’s cinema class. Except for his white hair, Flatow, dressed in a flannel shirt and faded jeans, fits right in.

Meanwhile, 88-year-old Kitty Weaver blows through Gelman’s turnstile like a warm breeze. She passes students waiting for the elevator, grabs a copy of The GW Hatchet and climbs the stairs. In the classroom, Weaver sits in the front row.

“I thought, what’s going on? ” said junior Bilijana Sebernovski, who sits behind Weaver in class. “I mean, you expect fraternity types and stuff, but this was someone’s grandmother. After a while though, I was like, `oh, this is cool.’ “

Weaver, who got her master’s degree from GW in 1933 and a writer who has authored three books on Russia, usually takes two courses each semester.

Weaver and Flatow are part of a growing trend on college campuses nationwide. The office of alumni affairs’ alumni auditing program allows alumni to take a course for $50 – opposed to the $1,800 paid by undergraduates.

Ten years ago, GW’s program was one of about a dozen such programs nationwide; today, campus outreach to seniors has become a profitable business, according to the GW alumni newsletter.

“I never stopped going (to school),” Weaver said. “I’ve always been a student. I went for one semester to Moscow University. My husband and I lived in the dormitory, which was really quite an experience.

“In Moscow, people over 35 don’t go to classes, so we were quite a novelty,” she said.

When school ended last May, Weaver went to the Great Apes Conference in Singapore and tracked wild orangutans in the jungle. She carries pictures in her purse to prove it. This semester, she is taking a course about primates.

Flatow, who received his master’s degree in engineering from GW in 1954, said he enrolled in Rollberg’s classes to pursue an interest he was never able to pursue.

“Although I graduated as an engineer and my whole career was as an engineer and engineer manager, I was always interested in literature, music and philosophy,” Flatow said. “When I retired I immediately tried to catch up on those things that I had missed while studying engineering.”

Flatow also is enrolled in a German cinema class.

“I have been watching movies all my life and now I see the art behind them,” he said. “I am learning a new language – one of images.”

Although many of these alumni students are much older than their professors, their enthusiasm and spirit for learning makes them ideal students.

“What young people tend to forget is that we all age, usually before age 30 you do not even notice your own aging process,” Rollberg said. “When you have various generations together in a class, it is a reminder of how complexly and continually people develop.

“My feeling has been that it intensifies the learning experience,” Rollberg said. “It really makes the class feel like an interesting and extended family.”

Weaver even brings a touch of celebrity to the classroom. Last year, a documentary film crew asked Weaver her opinion on the Russian play, “The Cherry Orchard in New York City,” which eventually appeared in Who’s Who in Entertainment.

But Weaver quickly clarified that her newfound celebrity would not become a distraction.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I have too much studying to do.”

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