Jacqueline Bell (left), 74, and Sara Hammerle, 23, talk while working on a painting project Thursday, March 7, 2024. Credit: Jenna Watson/Mirror Indy

Jackie Reeves is nothing if not a lifelong learner. 

Last year, the 75-year-old retired government employee planned on going back to Ball State to finish her master’s degree and doctorate in adult education. But when she found out it would cost tens of thousands of dollars and take four years, she changed her mind. 

“I don’t know how many more years I got, but I sure as hell intend to enjoy them,” Reeves said. 

It was at her local public library where she heard about a different path — Senior Scholars, a program at Ivy Tech that allows retirees 60 and older to take classes for free. Reeves enrolled in an art class.

She now spends Tuesday and Thursday mornings painting and drawing in a breezy studio classroom on Ivy Tech’s Indianapolis campus. It’s all part of her plan to savor every day.

Jackie Reeves, 75, works on a painting project Thursday, March 7, 2024, in a color and design class at Ivy Tech in Indianapolis. Ivy Tech allows Indiana residents ages 60 and older who are retired or working part time to take credit courses for free. Credit: Jenna Watson/Mirror Indy

“If you’re not actively learning, you might as well just pull the blanket of the earth over you,” Reeves said. “You begin to just give up. You don’t have motivation, you don’t have the same kind of fun and everything starts to shut down.”

Ivy Tech’s Senior Scholars’ free tuition is unique among other Indiana college programs for retirees. Purdue and IU, for example, have programs where retired students pay 50% of regular tuition fees. 

Though many Americans look forward to the freedom of retirement, some do struggle to adjust once they stop working, a phenomenon nicknamed the “retirement blues.” In 2023, one in three adults between 50 and 80 reported feeling isolated from others, according to a University of Michigan poll. 

Through Senior Scholars, Ivy Tech hopes to provide a place where seniors can not only continue learning but also find friendship and connection. Nearly all choose to take classes in person. 

“This provides an outlet for our retirees to still be active in their communities and be active in their own lives,” said Juan Carlos Buitron, Ivy Tech’s assistant vice chancellor for enrollment.

Helping seniors feel ‘rejuvenated’

When Buitron worked in Ivy Tech’s admissions office, he heard a common experience from retired students. 

“They all felt rejuvenated,” he said. “The renewed sense of excitement, of wanting to be a part of this and knowing that it’s a free service for them. It’s just exciting.”

Students work on a painting project, led by instructor Stephanie Robertson (right), on Thursday, March 7, 2024, in a color and design class at Ivy Tech in Indianapolis. Credit: Jenna Watson/Mirror Indy

Senior Scholars is a statewide program offered across Indiana’s 19 Ivy Tech campuses and satellite locations. In Indianapolis, 237 students ages 60 and up were enrolled for the spring semester. 

To be eligible for Senior Scholars, students must be an Indiana resident, at least 60 years old, retired and have a GED or high school diploma. Though retirees get free tuition, they’re responsible for paying for fees, textbooks or other materials — usually less than $150.

Senior Scholars students mainly choose to take general studies classes that fall under liberal arts and sciences — anything from painting to psychology to Spanish. 

The path varies depending on what students are looking for. While some take a course or two to learn something new, others go on to complete associate degrees. To Buitron, having older students on campus is not just a boon for retirees but for the broader campus community.

“I think it makes us culturally richer by having this kind of life experience donated to the classroom,” Buitron said. 

Learning more in retirement

Art professor Stephanie Robertson’s color and design class is full of laughter early on a Thursday morning, despite the gloomy weather. 

That’s in large part due to the three retirees taking her class, who sit near one another at a table. They chat animatedly and crack jokes as they work on their assignments for the day, a painting project. 

“I was really worried that I was going to be the oldster in the class, but there’s two other people here my age!” said Nina Kennedy, a 68-year-old retired librarian.

Instructor Stephanie Robertson (left) helps Nina Kennedy with a painting project Thursday, March 7, 2024, in a color and design class at Ivy Tech in Indianapolis. Credit: Jenna Watson/Mirror Indy

Kennedy, a weaver, heard about Senior Scholars from members of her Weavers Guild. It’s part of her exploring what not working anymore looks like for her. She’s determined not to sit at home and watch TV. 

“It just satisfies a hope for me to learn more, even in retirement,” she said. 

Unlike Kennedy, 74-year-old Jacqueline Bell didn’t think twice about her age when she enrolled in Robertson’s art class. She wanted to honor her older brother. Before he died three months ago, he’d told Bell that she loved art when she was younger, which she didn’t remember. She knows he’d be proud she’s pursuing it again.

“This journey, it may sound selfish, but it’s all about me,” she said. “That’s the only person I can worry about.”

There are challenges that the older students face that their younger peers don’t. Sometimes they might have trouble keeping their hands steady while painting or using tools like X-ACTO knives. Technology can be an obstacle, as everything’s far more computerized.

But there are advantages, too. Tiara Lambert, a 19-year-old fine arts major, said it’s fun to have older classmates. They help each other out and hype each other up. 

“Don’t underestimate them ladies over there, either,” said Lambert, pointing across the classroom to Bell, Kennedy and Reeves. “They come out with some amazing work.”

The differences in age don’t matter in this art class. What’s far more important is the students’ shared experience of connecting with their creative selves — and supporting each other along the way.

“They’re really encouraging to the young people and the young people are also encouraging to them,” Robertson, who’s also Ivy Tech’s art department program chair, said. “It’s reciprocal.”

Reeves certainly feels that way. She loves working with Robertson to take risks in her art and learning more about her creative potential. But most of all, she loves her crew of classmates.

“I don’t feel old here,” said Reeves. “I feel just as young as everybody else here. That’s a good thing to feel.”

Interested in learning more about Senior Scholars? Visit the program’s page online and apply to Ivy Tech here. You can also call Ivy Tech Indianapolis at 1-888-489-5463.

Claire Rafford covers higher ed for Mirror Indy in partnership with Open Campus.