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Mature Learners Go Back To School

This winter, half a dozen “mid-lifers” stepped out and went back to school. A mixture of more mature students found joining “college-aged” students for a regular Providence College course to be an exhilarating experience. All found “Religion and Society: Social Scientific Perspectives” taught by Dr. Dennis Hiebert, Professor of Sociology, at the Eastman Education Centre in Steinbach, to be even more rewarding than they had hoped. Some took the course for credit, and the rest audited it, just listening in and reading along.

They came from as far away as Morden, MB and Warroad, MN. Among them was a retired businessman, a carpenter, a school principal, a community activist, and a CEO of a national health society. They came as persons of strong faith, struggling faith, and no faith at all, having already completed undergraduate, masters, or doctoral degrees. “I don’t believe that any two of us attended for the same reason,” said Burt, one of the mature students.

Their shared anxiety about blending with the younger current full-time students dissipated quickly. “I enjoyed the setting,” said Ed. “Age was not an issue. It added to the experience.” As Lindsay, one of the college students reported, “I enjoyed chatting with the older students during break and after class, discussion which further engaged my learning. I wish more Providence classes had students like these.” In return, Chris reported that he was “emotionally moved by the responses and interactions of the college students. Relationally, I felt an unusual sense of community and bonding around common concerns.”

“Actually, the more mature learner has a great advantage over younger learners,” Dr. Hiebert commented, “because the impact of education is always greater when it names, describes, and explains already-lived experience. The inexperienced learner must trust that the knowledge is insightful, but the knowledge resonates with the experienced learner.”

As for their experience of the course material, some initial adjustment was necessary. “Never before have I had a Christian professor tell me I must suspend belief in the supernatural in order to receive the greatest possible benefit from a course!” remarked Chris. “I began to realize that the policies, politics, programs, and personalities of the church can be more powerful than the words of Christ.”

“What I have come to realize through this course is that even the most supposedly spiritual, the most supposedly mature, the most supposedly pious, the most supposedly passionate, and the most supposedly ‘closer to the Lord’ church cannot escape, at least partially, from being socially constructed. Nor can I!”

According to Ed, “What I heard in class was insightful, disturbing, and affirming. Affirming in discovering that my questions were valid, and could be addressed. The thoughts, feelings, and experiences I have had are not crazy, but legitimate, and shared by others. I am not alone. Disturbing in discovering that I had given a lot of energy to religion, and its life-draining impact. What began as a legitimate, supernatural, personal, and shared experience has too often been reduced in the effort to maintain the experience. It is also disturbing to know I have been an active participant in this process. I am both a victim and perpetrator.”

Judy was most appreciative of the section on stages of faith, and how it was able to explain troublesome differences between people of the same faith without theologizing or moralizing about it. “The differences between people of faith is not necessarily in the religious content of what they believe, but in the cognitive structure of how they believe….. God is bigger than the answers we generate.”

When asked if they would do it again, the mature students answered with “Absolutely,” “Without question,” and “First chance I get.” But Brigit had one regret. “I’m an agnostic, but I saw the love between the other students, and I wish I was part of it.”

Providence courses are always open to anyone who is interested. For more information about courses offered at Providence, email any questions to

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