When Martha Rask retired from her teaching job in 1995, she knew more free time would welcome her.
After more than 30 years in education, Rask didn’t want to leave it completely in the rearview mirror, so she decided to fill some of the free time by enrolling in a Portuguese class at nearby Ohio State through an opportunity called Program 60.
“I had friends that were in it that had retired prior to my retirement,” she said of Program 60. “And I thought, ‘That’s what I will do with my extra time now that I am retired.’”
Program 60 is a way for Ohio residents over the age of 60 to take classes — but not for credit — at OSU on a space-available basis without having to pay for tuition.
The concept came to Columbus by way of former University President Harold L. Enarson. He had stumbled across a similar program in Denver while vacationing there in 1973 and proposed the concept for something like it at OSU to the Board of Trustees, which later approved it.
Statewide legislation mandated every state-supported higher education institution have a similar program in 1976.
The inaugural semester saw 185 men and women enroll, a number that has been increasing in the 41 years since then.
“The average enrollment is now about 300 per semester,” Program Coordinator Lauren Evans said.
Registration numbers fluctuate based on whether it’s Summer, Autumn or Spring semester, she noted, but right now, the program is thriving.
“Autumn 2015 had our highest enrollment to date with 396 students,” Evans said.
To enroll, prospective students can sift through OSU’s course catalog and find classes they find interesting. If there are seats available and the instructor gives the green light, Program 60 students are able to be a part of the course.
Most undergraduate or graduate-level courses can be taken, Evans said. But a few stipulations on courses offered through the OSU College of Medicine and Moritz College of Law exist, as well as some art courses that have built-in fees.
Program 60 students sign up for classes that tend to be wide-ranging in both subject and in rationale for selecting them.
For Rask, who is also the secretary of the Program 60 Student Association, her experiences living in Brazil during the 1960s made her want to take Portuguese.
Contrarily, the desire to get a taste of something new also draws people in, like Cydny Birchfield and Brian Herreman, who are currently enrolled in their first course: one focusing on Japanese culture.
Birchfield said she and her husband have been interested in visiting the Land of the Rising Sun since seeing a movie set in feudal Japan. When they read about Program 60 a few years ago in a local newspaper, the couple opted to enroll in a class about the country before setting off for it.
It was worth it, Birchfield said, noting she and her husband will probably be spared from, at least, a few embarrassing moments now that they have a better grasp on the culture.
“When visiting a Japanese home, for example, it is considered very rude to go into any room other than the one your host brings you into,” she said. “Even when you enter a home, there is a certain way to position your shoes at the door.”
Rask, who estimates she has taken 15-20 courses over the years, and Birchfield both acknowledged being nervous at first, but they both spoke highly of the benefits from taking classes.
Program 60, however, is also a two-way street, as regular undergraduates can also benefit from sharing lectures with people with vast life experiences, according to Richard Dutton, a professor of English at OSU.
The enthusiasm and different backgrounds Program 60 students bring to the classroom enhance the experience for everyone, he said.
Dutton spoke of a Program 60 student who served in the armed forces to illustrate how the opportunity benefits everyone in the course.
“If you’re actually teaching Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V,’ which is all about fighting, as you’re having someone there who has actually been on a battlefield, that gives students a perspective that they might not have themselves,” Dutton said. “That opens all kinds of things up that you can’t get any other way.”