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Spanish Over Sixty

August 18, 2010

Imagine walking the busy halls of BMCC’s main building, and you overhear a student say the following:  “I’m doing this because I want to do it, not because my paycheck depends on it and not to get a good grade.”

If you were to do a double-take, no one would blame you.

“I’d like to take Chinese next,” the student continues, “or another physics course—physics has changed in the 50 years since I’ve been out of school.”

Keeping an active mind

And therein lies the clue to what makes this college student different from most others. Fifty years out of school has changed the way Ted Harvin, a 73-year-old retiree views his education.

Harvin grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant, graduated from Columbia University in 1956 with a degree in economics, and started his career as a systems engineer at IBM.

His 66-year-old fiancée, Delrosa Marshall, grew up in West Harlem. A former middle-school science teacher who retired in 1999, she also worked as a district science coordinator, and an adjunct at St. John’s University, sharing her experience in a Methods of Teaching Science class.

“I’ve reached a stage in my life,” she says, “where I don’t want to be around people who are dull and boring. I want to be active till I can’t be active anymore.”

Harvin echoes that sentiment. “I recommend taking classes to retired people,” he says. “It keeps your mind active. I do a lot of athletic things and keep my body active, and I like to keep my mind active too.”

Spanish 1, and other life subjects

Harvin and Marshall live in Jackson Heights, Queens, where their neighbors are from India and many Spanish-speaking countries.

“If you don’t speak Spanish, you can’t speak to half the population,” says Marshall. They also look forward to using more Spanish on their vacations--their last trip was to Akumal, Mexico, on the Yucatan peninsula, and they share a love of travel.

“I always wanted to sail the Caribbean,” says Harvin, “so at 65 I bought a boat and took off. I hired a professional captain. I was going to St. Croix--I got as far as DR [Dominican Republic] then the weather didn’t permit me going further.”

While this is their first class at BMCC, the couple is not new to the concept of so-called “lifelong learning.”

“We met at a dance studio,” says Marshall. “He was taking salsa lessons…” --“I was getting reading for a trip to DR,” clarifies Harvin-- “and I was watching my cousin’s swing band."

The diversity of generations

"I put a lot of time into this class,” says Harvin. “It’s a tough class. I spent the whole weekend studying—Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”

Their professor, Fay Rogg, notes that while BMCC students benefit from the rich ethnic and cultural diversity on campus, they also benefit from “the kind of generational diversity that exists in my Spanish 1 class, because of these two students.”

“After all,” says Rogg, “their educations began 50 years ago or more. It would never occur to Ted or Delrosa not to do homework, not to exert their utmost effort or not to work politely with other students. They also contribute to class discussions, a perspective on life that comes from having lived through successive political eras, social movements and economic phases.”

Marshall would like students to feel encouraged, by her and Harvin's example. “I hope when the students see us,” she says, “they see themselves in the future as being able to be active. Life does not end at whatever age you retire. Retirement doesn’t mean death.”

Fitting in, and coming back for more

The BMCC registrar’s office reports that during the Spring 2010 semester, only about 35 students over 60 years old--out of 22,000--enrolled at the college. Has the couple made friends their age on campus?

“I think we saw one gentleman,” said Harvin. “He might have been a professor,” corrected Marshall.

Still, they like being around younger people, and are mindful of the lifestyle differences between themselves and most other students, who are 30 to 40 years younger.

“I know what it’s like,” says Marshall, “balancing work and school. I worked all through college, the first time around.” She admits that the other students at first seemed to view them with a bit of surprise, but then, “I think once they realize we’re working as hard as they are, they accept us.”

Professor Rogg adds that Harvin’s and Marshall’s classmates “admire their dedication and diligence,” and the older couple, who chose BMCC for its atmosphere and interesting Tribeca location, plan to return in Fall 2010 for Spanish II.

“We’re going to be taking classes as long as they let us in the school,” says Marshall. Or as Harvin puts it, “There’s a saying, ‘So many women, so little time’. I’d like to change it to, ‘So much to learn, so little time’.”

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  • Spanish 1 attracts all kinds of students, including retirees
  • Delrosa Marshall and Ted Harvin enjoy college in a different way, the second time around
  • Professor Fay Rogg sees benefits to younger students, interacting with older classmates

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