“Washington University for Life” Supports an Age-Diverse Student Body

Diversity; Public Health; Social Work; Students

The virtual learning necessitated by the novel coronavirus pandemic has been a benefit in some respects to non-traditionally aged students at the Brown School, who enter graduate studies later in life. Erik Strange, a second-year MSW student and the father of a newborn, said the flexibility that online learning offers is a boon to busy students trying to navigate classes, family and sometimes long commutes.

“This model works for us,” said Strange, 35, who leads Next Move, a support group for older students. “The sad thing is not being able to be part of a community on campus. We’re definitely missing that.”  Next Move has been providing new students tips on everything from career services to local hiking trails.

The group now includes 27 students and is growing. It’s part of “Washington University for Life,” an initiative the Brown School began spearheading well before the pandemic hit. The group encourages teaching and learning for students older than the traditional ages at the university.  Led by Nancy Morrow-Howell, Betty Bofinger Brown Distinguished Professor of Social Policy, it “aims to create a more age-diverse community across the university.”

While diversity is a priority at both the university and the Brown School, Morrow-Howell said age is too often left out of the calculus. “Age diversity is just not on our radar,” she said. “We’re still fundamentally ageist.  Life expectancy has increased substantially; yet universities remain age-segregated and fail to educate people across the longer life course.”

“We created an infographic called How old is WashU? to demonstrate that the age distribution of undergraduate and graduate students is vastly out of step with the changing demographics of the country. 99% of undergrads are younger than 25 years; and although the age of the graduate student body varies across schools, most grad students are under age 30. University College has the largest percentage of students older than 30.  There is certainly room to increase the range of student ages in many units of the university.”

In 2018, WU joined the Age-Friendly University Global Network, founded by the University of Dublin in 2012 as a vehicle for sharing strategies to increase age-diversity in academia. Morrow-Howell said Washington University was one of the few private research universities to enter into this large learning collaborative. She’s working to expand the effort throughout the U.S. as a member of a national advisory committee for the Gerontological Society of America that focuses on age-inclusivity in higher education.

Through the Harvey A. Friedman Center on Aging, she is launching the Washington University for Life initiative to increase age diversity, and the Center recently completed focus groups with admissions and career services staff across campus to help steer the effort. 

“Staff elicited a number of challenges associated with increasing age diversity on campus, but they were quick to identify the assets that older students bring to the classroom – and to campus,” she said. “They found older students to be more intentional in their educational endeavors; and they valued the experience these students brought to the table. Focus group participants also acknowledge the benefits to younger students of having a multigenerational classroom.” 

Erik Strange is one of those students. He came to the Brown School after eight years in the military – including two tours in Afghanistan – and two years living and working at a home for intellectually disabled people. “I wanted to enhance my knowledge and skills so that I can create community, connection and purpose for people with intellectual disabilities,” he said.

“Coming to the Brown School, I felt like I could make an impact,” he said.  He felt some trepidation entering as an older student, but said his experience so far has been a good one.

Still, he has faced some hurdles as a newly married student with a new baby boy, managing the challenges of school while embarking on a new life course outside the classroom. That’s where the on-line classes come in.

“I have this time in school to step away from my professional life, to focus on what I want to do.  I welcome the opportunity to sit in class for three hours but it’s hard not to think of all the other things I could be doing at my house, like calling the carpet guy.”

Strange is continuing the legacy of Lynne Johnson, MSW ’18 and co-founder of Next Move. Johnson currently lives in Dallas and works for The Senior Source, a non-profit that provides services for older adults. She was 50 when she got her undergraduate degree. Due to her mother’s declining health, Johnson simultaneously became her full-time caregiver. After her mother passed away, Johnson began her Master of Social Work studies at the Brown School at age 52.  “Social work really called to me, especially after my experience as a caregiver,” she said, and the school’s opportunities helped her change careers with a focus on an aging population.

Like Strange, she faced challenges as an older student.

“The Brown School is part of a very traditional university that caters to students who have followed the traditional path,” she said. “I found it to be frustrating in the beginning; I didn’t feel the staff validated people going back to school in midlife.  We had to advocate for ourselves, and there wasn’t a lot of support.” She found ageism in the classroom from both students and faculty who appeared to discount the experiences she offered to provide real-world context to the subject matter at hand.

  “If you’re willing to listen to your non-traditional students and their needs, there can be so much richness developed within the classroom through the validation of previous experiences and knowledge,” she said. 

With time, Johnson was able to build positive rapport with faculty, staff and students.  In her last year, Morrow-Howell approached her to start a group to provide support for non-traditional students and the result was Next Move.

“It was really exciting,” Johnson said. “We had strong support from faculty and staff and an amazing turnout from students. “I felt positive about my overall experience at the Brown School; I received an excellent education and now I get to use a combination of direct practice, programs, and policy skills that I learned at the Brown School.”

In addition to benefiting students, serving students of all ages will strengthen the health of Washington University and society as a whole, Morrow-Howell said, as she argued in a paper recently published in The Gerontologist. She also stated that bolstering the human capital of people mid-life and beyond can ensure the capacity of the labor force, and educate people of all ages to succeed in age-diverse settings, and produce innovation in an aging society. It can also help ensure the supply of students as birth rates decline.

“The transformation of our universities must be done for the sake of society, for younger and older people, and for the self-interest of institutions themselves.”