See that smile? This amazing woman in Florida has a message for midlife Mainers

My attention was caught by an article in last weekend’s Bangor Daily News headlined “Great-grandmother earns bachelor’s degree.” The story originated in the Sun Sentinel, a print and online news outlet in South Florida. It was accompanied by a photo of 89-year-old Betty Reilly, sporting a cap and gown and a smile as bright as the Florida sunshine.

Betty Reilly, 89, in Miramar, Fla., on December 9, 2015, walked across the stage at Florida Atlantic University to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. (Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

Betty Reilly, 89, in Miramar, Fla., on December 9, 2015, walked across the stage at Florida Atlantic University to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. (Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

Betty graduated this month from Florida Atlantic University with the ever-popular B.A. in English, as I did in 1999 from the University of Maine. And, according to the story, she did it for the same reason I did — to beef up her resume and give herself more job options. She was building on her late-in-life high-school GED, which she earned in 2007 at the age of 80. In my case, the goal was to parlay my two-year degree in nursing, earned in 1984 when I was 30, into a long-delayed four-year degree, and — like Betty — to give myself more job options.

I was 45 when I graduated with my B.A., arguably in a better position than Betty to take advantage of my new credential and repay the modest debt I had accrued. But both she and I would be quick to say that our hard-won diplomas and the lines they added to our resumes were only part of the point. The greater value was in the campus experience itself — the relationships we forged, the new ideas we encountered and the day-to-day exhilaration of living in that heady university environment.

“I am so happy because of this milestone,” Betty told the Sun Sentinel reporter after receiving her diploma. “But I’m also a little sad, too. I’d really like to go on and continue my education.” Her younger classmates, she said, had been nothing but supportive — “my greatest boosters.”

I see stories about late-in-life college graduates fairly often, and I always read them with pleasure. They remind me of what a good decision it was for me to go back to school, full-time, in my early 40s. I had the great advantage of not having to work much during those two years, since my then-husband was earning enough to keep our small family afloat, and I was able to fall headlong into the academic experience. Despite the very real stress of exams, papers and team projects, of paying for tuition, books and campus fees, of adapting to new technologies and navigating the peculiar bureaucracy of the public university system, that period was among the most richly rewarding and exciting of my life.

So, it was with mixed feelings that I accepted my diploma and headed back into the real world to find a job. Fortunately for me, the work I stumbled into was journalism, surely one of the most educational careers there is, offering near-daily opportunities to learn something new, interesting and sometimes important about the world I inhabit.

One of the many things I have learned is that there are tons of opportunities available to us as we age to keep exploring new ideas, trying new activities and expanding our understanding of and participation in the world. And we don’t have to take out a second mortgage to do it, either.

At the most basic level,  we can simply pay attention and take advantage of informal opportunities as they present themselves — public lectures, garden tours, concerts, exhibits, nature walks and so on. In addition, Mainers 65 and older can take free courses, with or without earning academic credits, through the University of Maine System.  Those 62 and older can take courses through the Maine Community College System. For almost nothing, people 50 and older can also sign up for classes through the statewide Maine Senior College network, which offers a vast and enticing array of choices ranging from introductory genomics to rug-hooking. Most communities, even the smallest and most rural, offer affordable adult education classes through their local schools, including high school equivalency preparation, adult literacy programs and “personal enrichment” offerings like conversational Spanish, watercolor painting or dog obedience classes.

All of these options have the added benefit of getting us out of our houses and into the world in the good company of others whose ideas may support, challenge or enrich our own. As far as I can see, this business of being a lifelong learner can be only good for our psyches, our social lives and our self-esteem.

“The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in his 1885 collection, “A Child’s Garden of Verses.”

I couldn’t say it better myself, and I suspect that Betty Reilly, flashing that gorgeous smile, agrees, too.    

Meg Haskell writes for and about the baby boom generation for the Bangor Daily News. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.

Meg Haskell

About Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.