Senior citizen students feel fulfilled by FILL
Walking and talking in Hennessy Hall are (from left) longtime FILL administrative assistant Geraldine Cucciniello; student Maurice Stevens; and students/RPI instructors Deborah Gerrish and Judith Israel. (Photos by Dan Landau)
By Kenna Caprio
It’s not uncommon to see a group of senior citizens chatting away while walking to class or sitting in the cafeteria together. These students from another generation have found a place at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
“I’ve been interested in (continuing my education) since I took my kids on college tours,” says Jim O’Mahony, a lifelong learner who lives in Randolph Township, N.J.
O’Mahony, along with 125 other local retirees, participates in the University’s FILL (Florham Institute for Lifelong Learning) program at the College at Florham.
“It’s good for your body and good for your brain to keep active,” says Bruce Peabody, FILL director and political science professor. “Stimulating oneself in a University context is a natural fit, in part because the University offers resources for both body and mind. You can take a class on opera appreciation and then go work out in the gym for 45 minutes and then take a meditation class. That’s a full afternoon of therapy and enrichment, right there. Come to think of it, sign me up too!”
Established in 1972 by Joseph Tramutola, Jr., now a retired business law professor, FILL’s first name was EPOP (Educational Program for Older Persons). The program originally offered the chance for senior citizens over the age of 65 to enroll in courses alongside traditional undergraduate college students.
Now seniors can audit courses, enroll for credit or opt for RPI (Retired Persons Institute) classes, taught by lifelong learners for lifelong learners. RPI classes include a mixture of academic and informal topics, covering subjects as far-flung as Irish literature, the brain and behavior, meditation and photography. FILL has also expanded by lowering the age requirement from 65 to 62. And, for the first time this spring, FILL sponsors a lecture series, “Behind the Headlines,” which will bring prominent scholars and policy analysts to campus for conversation on vital topics in the news.
FILL students (from left) Elaine Hoffman, Ken Spingarn, Jim O'Mahony, Tricia Tiensch and Lee Ousley get scholarly in the Monninger Center.
For Maurice Stevens, a former oral surgeon from Mendham, N.J. who completed his B.A. in history in 2001, FILL’s intellectual stimulation has paid dividends in other leisure activities.
Stevens has traveled to China, Israel, Russia and Egypt and taken courses on modern Chinese politics and Israeli society. “You’re visiting with a deeper understanding of other countries, cultures and religions then,” he says. “You become more than just a tourist.”
At home, Stevens enjoys the interaction with traditional undergraduates. “It’s nice to be with young people,” he remarks. Most FILL students say being on campus keeps them feeling young. “I love to just hear what’s on younger people’s minds,” says Elaine Hoffman of Berkeley Heights, N.J.
And for undergraduates, mingling with FILL classmates is a chance to appreciate another perspective from another generation. “It’s really commendable because it shows just how much people value education, no matter their age. FILL students are people to look up to,” says senior and sociology major Julia Dakich of Livingston, N.J.
Both Peabody and Geraldine Cucciniello, longtime FILL administrative assistant, make it a point to note that they only hear positive reviews from both undergraduates and FILL students about those interactions. “There’s real reciprocal learning taking place between these age cohorts,” says Peabody.
Lifelong learners also attend lectures, art shows, athletics events and plays together on campus. Some have standing lunch dates at the dining hall. “I might not want to go to a play by myself. But because I’m in the program, I can meet friends there,” explains Patricia Moran of Chatham, N.J., BS’63 (M), MBA’72 (T), who first connected with FILL through the Public Affairs Lecture Series, sponsored by FDU and held at the Morris Museum.
“This program has saved so many people, especially those who have moved to be closer to their children. You could join a synagogue or church, but usually it’s hard for seniors to befriend other seniors,” Cucciniello says.
Cucciniello and Peabody also coordinate one off-campus trip a semester. Students have visited the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.; The United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.; and this spring, Duke Farms in Hillsborough, N.J.
“It’s so exciting to be teaching in FILL,” says RPI poetry instructor Judith Israel. “Every student is so enthusiastic.”
More program details, including upcoming RPI class schedules, are available through Cucciniello, who can be reached at 973-443-8654. Classes are also listed on the FILL website. Though no formal lifelong learning program exists on the University’s Metropolitan Campus in Teaneck, senior citizens can audit or enroll in FDU courses there at a reduced rate as well by calling 201-692-2214.
“As long as there's a seat for us, we're in,” says Stevens with a grin.