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A 65-year-old college student shares wisdom on reinventing oneself

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

It's a new year, and many of us are thinking about how to reboot, refresh and reinvent ourselves in 2023. Well, we've got some inspiration to help. Joan Steidl knows all about reinvention. Recently, she learned comedy, made new friends and has gone back to college. Joan is in her 60s. She made a podcast about all of these changes. In fact, she was a finalist in NPR's College Podcast Challenge. Here's Joan Steidl in an excerpt from her podcast, "The Mother Of Reinvention."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "AGING: THE MOTHER OF REINVENTION")

JOAN STEIDL: Hi, I'm Joan. And I will admit it - I struggle to use technology, but that just gives me some great material for my online comedy writing workshops.

(LAUGHTER)

STEIDL: Why do I need to learn Windows 10 when Windows 95 has been working just fine?

(LAUGHTER)

STEIDL: But I finally sucked it up, and I learned how to do Zoom. I called my baby boomer friends. I said, let's do Zoom. Can you hear me now? Can you hear me? All I can see is your nostrils. Can't I just call you on the...

I decided to give comedy writing a try at the beginning of the pandemic. It was a fun first step towards reinventing myself. I'm channeling Betty White and trying to learn comedy writing. I've renewed my AARP membership, signed up for Medicare. So what's next? Time to return to college. I guess that makes me a boomerang. Anyhow, the first day of class, I walked in with my flip phone, sharpened pencils, spiral notebooks. I felt like an 18-year-old again. I figured I'd fit right in.

(LAUGHTER)

STEIDL: Something came up in class. They wanted to know about something that happened in 1976. Everyone looks at me. And I'm like, why are you looking at me? Why do they think I have the answer?

(LAUGHTER)

STEIDL: But before you could say Alexa, I blurted out the answer. Everyone wants me on the bar trivia team now.

(LAUGHTER)

STEIDL: There was a 2019 study that showed there were over 6 million adult students enrolled in higher education. I'm one of them. Forty-plus years ago, I earned my first bachelor's degree. Today, I'm at Kent State working on another one. My academic advisor is Dr. Kelly Cichy. And get this - she's a gerontologist.

KELLY CICHY: I work with and primarily on behalf of older adults - sort of midlife through later adulthood.

STEIDL: So when you talk about midlife, what age are you talking?

CICHY: It depends who you ask (laughter).

STEIDL: Well, if you ask me, 65 - that means I'm going to live to be 130, right?

CICHY: I was going to say - and there's research to show that when you think midlife starts kind of depends on how old you are. But most of the time, we're probably talking about people starting around 45 through early 60s. And then, after about 65, we might start talking about older adults.

STEIDL: So you're saying I need to refer to myself as an older adult?

CICHY: You don't have to refer to yourself any particular way.

STEIDL: (Laughter).

CICHY: But again, even those definitions are constantly changing and evolving.

STEIDL: In my day, I kept track of my friends with a Rolodex.

I do not understand social media, and...

MADDY HABERBERGER: Sometimes I don't either.

STEIDL: OK, well - and when you said that last semester, that made me happy 'cause I'm like - I am so out of it.

HABERBERGER: It's a lot. It really is.

STEIDL: Thank goodness for my energetic, 21-year-old, Gen Z journalism classmate, Maddy Haberberger.

HABERBERGER: So many ways. And it's, like, a language that we know.

STEIDL: When people talk about the social media apps, I don't know them.

HABERBERGER: Yeah. I'd say the main four social media sites...

STEIDL: OK.

HABERBERGER: ...That we use - Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and the newest is TikTok. Generally, if you're going to talk to somebody my age, you can say, what's your Instagram? What's your Twitter? What's your Snapchat? What's your TikTok?

STEIDL: Why not just use email?

HABERBERGER: I think a lot of it, for us, is, again, because it's just what we know. We just grew up with it in a way...

STEIDL: I don't think I have the mental bandwidth to remember all the passwords for so many new accounts. It still seems easier to pick up a pen or use the landline.

HABERBERGER: Communication is just something that is so much a part of every part of our lives in different ways than it was with yours. I don't write letters. I send texts. But it's communicating, but we're doing it in a different way.

STEIDL: Any stereotypes you think that people have about older adults?

CICHY: Driving - probably still have some attitude about older drivers.

STEIDL: I really don't want life to move any faster. That's why you see me driving slow in the passing lane. I'm not going to speed things up. I left the signal on on purpose because it helps with my night vision.

(LAUGHTER)

STEIDL: I love being my age, and I love being back in the classroom. School is keeping me engaged and energized. Mentally active? It's like sudoku on steroids. Even my creaky knees feel young again.

HABERBERGER: Do you feel grown up, Joan?

STEIDL: No. No.

HABERBERGER: Absolutely. I don't feel grown up at 21. So I think a big misconception is, like, older people thinking the younger people are at a better place or they're smarter, or the younger people thinking the older people are smarter or more experienced or more grown up.

CICHY: Working with older students helps them realize all older people are not alike. I think working with younger students reminds older people that all younger people are not alike.

HABERBERGER: It doesn't matter how old you are. Different age groups are just another perspective to connect with.

STEIDL: I'm pretty certain Comedy Central is not going to call, and I don't even think I'll make the dean's list. But that's not the point. I'm just having way too much fun learning, growing, and reinventing myself.

NADWORNY: Thank you, Joan Steidl, a finalist in NPR's College Podcast Challenge this year. The college challenge will be back next fall, but our contest for middle- and high-school podcasters opens up this month. Teachers, students, parents - check out npr.org/studentpodcastchallenge2023. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Janet W. Lee