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In my opinion

It’s time to combat ageism in higher education

Fostering intergenerational education enriches us all, providing us with unique and diverse perspectives.

BY ANGEL EVANS | DEC 11 2020

A few years ago, I re-enrolled in university to upgrade my original undergraduate degree received 25 years prior. Having worked in students affairs for a number of years, I felt comfortable interacting with professors and students alike and had no reservations about this decision. In fact, I was exhilarated by the thought of being a student again and looked forward to the opportunity to engage in academic discussions with my peers.

During the first week in one of my courses, the professor asked us to complete an inventory, which requested some basic demographic information. Moving through each section, the professor provided us with additional instructions as he made his way around the classroom. Stopping, the professor suddenly turned his head in my direction and looking directly at me, informed us that we need not fill in the age range on the inventory if we were not comfortable sharing that information.

Although I recognized this comment was made with the best of intentions, I was still taken aback with the suggestion that I should somehow be embarrassed or ashamed about my age. Reflexively, I exclaimed, “I don’t mind sharing that I am 48. There is nothing wrong with that.” It was with that seemingly innocuous transaction that I felt the bitter sting of implicit ageism and my identity suddenly shifted from student to mature student (othered).

Fast forward a couple of years to the present day where I am completing coursework for a master of education degree in the student affairs field of study. I am currently enrolled in an independent study where I am conducting a systematic review of the literature regarding mature students and their experiences with ageism in higher education.

Spoiler alert: while many mature students have similar experiences as I described in my introduction, there seems to be limited research specifically looking at ageism for this student demographic. I am learning that there is much research about ageism in hiring and other HR practices – for example, early retirement packages for faculty – but seldom does it extend to mature students and their experiences in higher education. This is not because ageism does not exist; it just does not seem to be talked about.

My motivation for writing this article is to bring attention to this often overlooked topic and demographic in higher education. As a student affairs professional myself, I understand that many of us entered into this profession because we care about students and genuinely want to help and be a part of someone’s academic journey. I also appreciate that, like my well-intentioned professor above, we may unintentionally perpetuate myths of aging through our actions, words or attitudes. With this in mind, I invite you to review the following:

1. Be a language and attitude role model

Consider that others are always listening. Hearing others quip about their “senior moments” eventually gets internalized for both the speaker and the listener. It is best to challenge these ideas and thoughts now because they only serve to perpetuate stereotypes.

2. Assumptions, no matter how well-intentioned, are rarely well received

It is best to let the student take the lead, deciding for themselves if or how they want to respond to a question about their age demographic, for example.

3. Stereotypes are unhelpful

As I write this, we are deep into a pandemic, rendering most in-person interactions nonviable. Consider that students of any age may struggle with technology and that there are many reasons why they may struggle. Slow internet, software and/or hardware issues, or even access problems are just some of the challenges that we are seeing. These technology challenges are not age dependent, so offer your support to help a student work through their technology issues without making assumptions about their abilities based on their age.

4. Consider all students when developing programing, department policies and materials

Finally, intergenerational education enriches us all, providing us with unique and diverse perspectives. Campuses that cater solely to students of a more traditional age may not only be missing out on benefiting from these perspectives but may also contribute to ageism. I, for one, would love to see advertising and promotional material include intergenerational images, for example, as a natural part of the campus culture.

The main concern with perpetuating age myths and harbouring negative attitudes about age is that they can have a profound negative effect on one’s mental well-being. It has even been found to impact longevity. It is a topic of personal and professional interest and I look forward to completing my systematic review and shedding light on this phenomenon in higher education.

Angel Evans is an MEd student studying at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research interests include compassion fatigue in student affairs as well as investigating how universities can meet the unique needs of mature students.

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