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PCC seeing rise in older students returning to college

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Oregon has the second highest unemployment in the nation (12.1 percent) and much of the latest surge has been attributed to a rise in older adults un-retiring or being laid off.

According to Portland Community College’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness, the number of full-time equivalent students 50 or older taking career and professional technical courses at PCC has increased by 18.9 percent since 2005-06. Even without the effects of the economic recession, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that, by 2016, workers between the ages of 55 to 64 will increase by 36.5 percent and those 65 and older by 81 percent.

The Oregon Legislature is considering a bill, House Bill 2011, which would allow people 65 and older to take classes for free at any state university or community college. With PCC’s credit enrollment up seven straight terms (19 percent this spring alone), all this fits the current overall trend of more and more people using the community college to re-train or get the additional education they need to find a job.

Jan Abushakrah, gerontology instructor and chairperson, is noticing more older adults coming to her program for help in finding a new career, either through the program’s Encore Career options or simply seeking help in navigating their return to college. As a result, gerontology has been offering a series of workshops on job skills geared toward the field of aging. She said several of the new students have doctoral degrees and more than 40 percent are above the age of 50.

“A lot of older students really don’t feel comfortable in the standard college classes,” Abushakrah said. “This is the second term we’ve done the workshops. We can have 15-20 students at a time and they’ve been full. It gives students an idea of where they should be. To be unemployed is a real downer. It’s so hard on your self-esteem. What we try to do is to have these workshops and get them into classes. If we offer enough opportunities with face-to-face meetings, it starts building up a network.”

A month ago, the workshops inspired gerontology faculty adviser Cat Zimmerman so much that she rounded up many of these students to develop the Ageless Network. On every second Monday at the Sylvania Campus (12000 S.W. 49th Ave.), the new club brings together students – mostly in their 40s and 50s – to brainstorm and network among themselves and community partners on new directions in the field of aging (including self-employment and other possibilities).

“It started as a small group who wanted to get together and talk about sharing goals, business ideas and opportunities,” Zimmerman said. “Instead it has blossomed into a support group. When you’re out there by yourself, to have somewhere to go to express your fears and not be laughed at, is what people need. It’s so supportive.”

The diversity of the group can be found in Nina Williams and Janice Lloyd. Williams is almost done with her degree after suffering an injury on the job as a Certified Nursing Assistant that forced her to retrain into a new field. She said she will get her applied science and gerontology degrees as well as an advanced behavioral care cognition certificate this June from the college.

“Gerontology has always been a passion,” said Williams, a veteran of the second Gulf War where she served as a tank mechanic.

Lloyd is a newcomer, steered toward gerontology after taking a Community Education class from Abushakrah. She is transferring credits after working on a degree at a university on the East Coast, specializing in anthropology and psychology.

“I moved here from back East and fell upon this program and I’m so excited I did,” Lloyd said. “It’s cutting edge and I have never seen it in any other state. I hope to start school here. There are so many subfields that it’s very exciting.”

Another program – Life By Design NW – also is seeing greater demand by older adults. Life by Design NW has a volunteer engagement program designed to enlist individuals 50 and older in meaningful service utilizing their skills and experience. In addition, it has community partners who form a web of support and resources to meet the individual’s needs.

“In response to the recent requests from program participants, we are expanding our scope to more specifically target the areas relating to work and employment,” said Karen Shimada, the program’s director.

These requests for assistance, resources and support have dramatically increased over the last two months, Shimada said. People are asking them how to write an ageless résumé; how to find jobs in the nonprofit sector, how to conduct an interview with a recruiter who is 30 years younger than they are; how to start a business or become a social entrepreneur; and how to fine-tune their skills or get up-to-date in the latest technology.

“Many people we see are considering returning to school for the first time since they left high school or college and don’t know where to begin,” Shimada added. “Individuals are sounding increasingly more fearful, anxious and confused regarding their next steps because assumptions about their retirement and work life suddenly fell out from under them. In fact, many who call are in dire straits and in need of programs and services immediately. Others, however, may not be in crisis, but are aware that they need guidance to navigate the life transitions that lie ahead.”

Life by Design NW is hosting upcoming events to help these people transition back to college. On May 27, the program is hosting, “Coffee and Conversation,” from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Central Portland Workforce Center, 1626 S.E. Water Ave. Personal coach Aubrie Abbott and facilitator Cynthia Dailey-Hewkin will help attendees brainstorm strategies for supporting themselves with their passion and purpose toward transition or retirement planning. The Coffee and Conversations are held every last Wednesdays of the month and involve different topics.

The program will host classes to help 50-plus individuals plan ahead. From June 24 through July 15, “Reinventing Life Together: Planning a Dream Retirement for Two” guides participants in accessing their core values, passions, life balances and financial options effectively. From June 30 through July 28, “The Inner Journey in the Second Half of Life,” will help answer important questions for students in their second half of life. Where do I belong? What do I really care about? What is my legacy? Through fun, interactive activities, people will explore the possible answers and discover tools and resources for the next phase of life. Both are held at the Central Workforce Training Center.

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »

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