President Donna E. Shalala isn’t at the Grove or South Beach on Thursday nights – she’s teaching an interdisciplinary course on aging entitled the “Graying of America,” along with professors from a variety of academic disciplines. Students in the class range from typical college students to senior citizens.
“There are older people in the class and younger people,” said Harout Samra, a senior majoring in political science and economics. “This is something that affects everybody.”
Throughout the course, students are educated in a wide array of areas relating to the process of aging, ranging from the politics and economics of Social Security to the biological and medical aspects of aging.
“There is just no place else on earth where you could get some of the people who’ve actually worked in the field, who have created policy, teaching undergraduates,” Shalala said of the class.
Shalala went on to say that Carl Eisdorfer, one of the professors of the course, defined the field of gerontology and psychiatry, and that she herself was responsible for both Social Security and Medicare.
Dr. Stephen Sapp, chairman of the religious studies department and one of the professors teaching the course, agreed.
“A course on aging taught in a specific discipline would be a very valuable course, but it would be limited,” Sapp said.
For the first three weeks of the course, the focus was on the political dimensions of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
For Samra the subject matter held special interest.
“When I was interning in D.C. [this summer] with Congressman Mark Foley [R-Fla], a lot of the stuff we’re talking about. . . were really pressing issues,” Samra said. “We got hundreds and hundreds of calls daily from senior citizens saying things ranging from how they can’t afford their medication to those not wanting to get forced into an HMO.”
Currently, the focus of the course has moved from politics to the physical and social aspects of aging.
“That was the one thing President Shalala made absolutely clear,” Sapp said.. “The first conversation I had with her was about not a course on aging, but an interdisciplinary course on aging, and she wanted those different perspectives.”
This approach seems to be popular with the students as well.
“I love the fact that right now we have the best of the best teaching the course,” Jami Lawrence, a senior majoring in advertising and sociology, said. “I think it’s just so amazing that we get so many different aspects of it.”
In educating the students on this topic the professors seek not only to educate, but also to prompt the students to think critically about the information presented.
To this end, two writing assignments have been handed out that direct the students to pick one of the areas they have been reading about and deliberately disagree with it so as to gain a better understanding of the topic.
Sixty-nine-year-old Gail Storts appreciates the fact that students are encouraged to question what they are taught.
“I think this class is extremely exciting,” Storts said. “I love it that the students are interested enough to ask questions and to question some of the statements that are made.”
Since Storts is part of the target segment of society that the course covers, the class is not only an educational experience for her but also lends itself to practical application in her life.
Speaking about her experience as a current Medicare recipient, Storts feels she has a better understanding of the program now that she has sat through the lecture on how it works at the administrative level.
“I think I understand it differently and understand more about it than I did before. It’s very appropriate to my life,” Storts said.
According to students, the key to the course is the expertise of the professors.
Both Samra and Lawrence took the course in part because of Shalala’s involvement with it and the experience she brings to the class from her tenure as Secretary of Health and Human Services.
For Shalala, teaching courses like this is what she loves most about her career.
“I’ve always taught. No matter what my job was,” Shalala said. “The only time I didn’t teach was when I was in government.”
Scott Wacholtz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.