For the love of knowledge

Betsy Applebaum has had 28 first days of school at GW.

The 71-year-old has been auditing classes at the University since 1983, adding up to well over a 100 classes – but don’t ask her how many. She lost count long ago.

Applebaum said taking courses at her alma mater is a way of keeping her mind sharp and staying involved with the University.

“I’m probably the oldest living auditor they’ve got,” Applebaum joked. “Not really in age, but in terms of years I’ve been doing it.”

After receiving a master’s degree in American studies in 1983, Applebaum began auditing classes at GW during her lunch hour while working at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Applebaum now takes courses through the Alumni Course Audit Program, which allows GW alumni and Foggy Bottom residents over 60 to return to the classroom and enroll in select courses on a not-for-credit basis.

“I treat it just as if I was enrolled in the class,” she said. “I buy the books, I do all the readings and I go to as many classes as I can.”

Applebaum said she has countless notebooks filled with her notes from over 25 years of classes.

“My feeling is that if I know a little bit more than I did when I started, it’s been a good thing.”

For alumni Applebaum and Joseph Berl, auditing courses at GW is not just a way of enriching an education, but also re-establishing a connection and sense of belonging to the University.

After retiring from private practice as a lawyer in 2008, Berl was eager to return to the university from which he graduated over 40 years before.

“Originally, I thought of it as a way of structuring the week and structuring my time when I suddenly had a lot of my commitments disappear,” Berl, a GW Law School alumnus, said.

English professor Margaret Soltan has taught Berl in several courses and has welcomed alumni into her classroom almost every semester.

“For me, it’s always a pleasure that they can enrich class discussion because of their deeper life experience,” Soltan said. “I think the alumni lend a note of greater seriousness to the class.”

Soltan believes the natural inclination to expand one’s intellectual horizons keeps alumni returning to her lectures.

“When you are seeing your life quiet down in many ways, this can be a type of reflection,” she said. “I also imagine that there is a broader draw about deepening your thought about life as you get older.”

Religion professor Robert Eisen said many older alumni return to campus hoping to feel the energy of a thriving intellectual environment.

“Sitting at home and reading books really does not give you the human interaction that is going to make it interesting and exciting,” Eisen said. “These are smart adults who know that they could use the guidance of a professor who spends their lives studying these things.”

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