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Student Clubs & Associations, Student Life

Birds of a feather: USF offers options for senior-citizen students, yet fitting in remains a challenge

Joseph Piervincenti spent the morning searching for a hamburger that he didn’t even want.

A USF music student, Piervincenti was in a dour mood that September morning. He had just walked into the Marshall Student Center, where he normally goes to read after class, and he noticed he was the only student who did not receive a greeting at the door during a Week of Welcome event.

Although other students may have ignored the perceived slight, Piervincenti did not.

For him, it was just another sign that younger generations do not respect their elders; that he did not quite fit.

Piervincenti said he had been ignored before, and he knew it would probably happen again. But the way the student greeters “looked right through” him prompted the student to file a complaint with the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

He felt he was being discriminated against because of his age, yet the workers in the discrimination office simply suggested he get a free burger and “join in the fun” of Week of Welcome festivities.

Thus, he embarked on a quest.

If the average USF student, age 18-22, can be characterized as a hamburger, then Piervincenti might be considered a pastrami sandwich.

With a long, white ponytail, the 62-year-old is a combination of spice and sour. He believes his age causes his peers to treat him differently. Though the university has many accommodations for seniors wishing to attend college, Piervincenti has learned that fitting in with twenty-somethings is not guaranteed.

“I enjoyed the privilege of public access at the library for several years before I registered at 60,” he said.  “I registered because I was amazed at the prospect of entering a university, a place that I have felt was a bastion of knowledge, education, and learning — a free-spirited, open-minded and intellectual environment as I had experienced in the seventies at the City University of New York.

“Wow, did I get a rude awakening.”

That brings the story back to the burger search, which led Piervincenti to a young man rolling a food cart into an elevator in the student center.

“Well, we’re going up to the Ballroom now,” the student told Piervincenti, while filling the mouth of the elevator with vats of patties.

Piervincenti would not give up. He asked if he could get one from the student once they reached the burgers’ final destination.

“Well, we’re trying not to give them out too quickly,” the student said.

As rain careened off the windows of the center, Piervincenti once again felt the stigma of his age.

“Oh?” Piervincenti said. “Well, you already gave out about 200 of them to all the people in here. That seems pretty quick to me.”

He began to pull out his student ID to prove that the burger was deserved.

“Oh, all right, I’ll give you one,” the student replied. “Do you want veggie or meat?”

Piervincenti recalled: “While I was eating it with a lump of upset in my throat, a young couple came to (the fourth floor) with their hamburgers and sat and ate them. I introduced myself and … reviewed with them what I went through to get my hamburger and asked if they experienced that, too. They said no. They just walked up to the stand and were given hamburgers. The gentleman told me he (wasn’t) even a student here.”

And so was born a discrimination complaint, which the office chose not to pursue.

According to USF’s Non-Discrimination Policy, students are prohibited from “singling out or targeting an individual for different or adverse treatment,” as well as “making comments, slurs, or jokes which are derogatory toward any individual’s race, color, marital status, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, genetic information, sexual orientation or military status.”

Though the Division of Student Affairs exists to help students who feel they have been victimized, Piervincenti said he rarely goes that far. Many of his experiences are simply a case of “birds of a feather flocking together,” he said — students feel more comfortable around those their own age.

He’s learned, for the most part, that he just has to live with that.

Piervincenti finds some encouragement through members of MINT – Mature Independent Non-traditional students, though he said it is “not a senior organization in the least.”

Ana Labadie, a senior majoring in accounting and president of the group, is the mother of a 16-month-old baby and is in the process of purchasing her first house with her husband, who enrolled at USF this fall.

She and her husband both have been laid off from jobs on more than one occasion since 2007, sending her back to school full-time.

“I wanted to make sure that I had the full college experience even though I am 32 and married with a baby,” Labadie said. “I did not want to attend school part time for a few years, get a degree and be out. I wanted to feel like I was in college at USF and really embrace the experience of being a Bull.”

Piervincenti wants those things too, but for him, the non-traditional student group is not a perfect fit.

At one time, he thought he would form a student organization specifically for senior citizens, yet those he encouraged to enroll at USF were reluctant.

“They generally didn’t seem to want to come forward or to be in the spotlight,” he said. “A couple said that they didn’t feel that they fit in.”

Some seniors avoid sticking out on campus by taking classes through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a membership organization for senior citizens who wish to take college classes without grades and within their own age group.

Though no headcount is available for seniors registered at USF, the institute has seen an average growth rate between 5 and 7 percent over the last three years, said Director Aracelis Rogers.

“Our home base in the Continuing Education Building is filled with social work and public health students,” Rogers said. “There is a natural tendency to ‘stick with your own,’ though, and that’s as true for OLLI members as it is for USF students.

“When there is opportunity for interaction, it is often eye-opening for the student and for the older adult,” Rogers said. “I like to think that what OLLI is really about is challenging stereotypes about what it means to grow old. I’d describe the interactions I’ve observed (between student and senior) as mutually respectful and supportive.”

The Lifelong Learning Institute, which has about 1,300 members, offers individual courses for those 50 and older, for prices ranging from $30 to $50 per class. There are few assignments, no tests, no grades and no degrees.

But that is not the experience Piervincenti wanted. A vocalist who performed professionally in New York for about four years, he chose to audit music classes.

USF’s Senior Citizen Audit Program allows Florida residents like Piervincenti to enroll in university courses on a space available basis without paying fees or receiving university credit, though “space available often means not available on our crowded campus,” Rogers said.

Rogers said a small scholarship program has been developed for OLLI members, but she did not know of any scholarships for the “degree-seeking, older adult.”

The Osher Reentry Scholarship helps non-traditional students return to college to finish their bachelor’s degree, she said, but it is not offered to adults over the age of 50.

Piervincenti, who will begin receiving Social Security retirement benefits this fall, said his family thinks it’s “very cool” that he has returned to school.

Despite the challenges, so does he.

“Human nature is frail in many ways,” he said. “I find that while diversity attempts to recognize the differences we have between us as peoples, that perhaps some efforts might be made in recognizing the ‘sameness-es’ we have as human beings. I feel there’s a lot more in the sameness category than there is in the ‘different-ness’ category.”


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