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Over 60, trio gains degrees, confidence

Standing on the plaza next to the Campus Center, poised to march onto the lawn and graduate from the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Janet Benkert felt a rare elation.

''To march down those steps and hear the music, to be this age and not feel it -- I thought it was the most thrilling and exciting thing," she said.

For Benkert, 65, and her friends and fellow graduates Alice Ryan, 71, and Camille Presti, 65, UMass degrees are something they can call their own, after decades spent caring for their families and helping their children earn college educations. ''This was ours," said Benkert. ''It belonged to us."

The three new bachelor's degree recipients, from Weymouth, Nahant, and Burlington, are part of a small but growing wave of senior citizens starting college late in life. Like many women of their generation, they married soon after high school and had children. They enrolled at UMass after finding themselves at a crossroads: Their children grown and gone, their own educations long abandoned, they were looking for a new pursuit to give their lives richness and meaning.

In the spring, UMass-Boston had 142 undergraduates between ages 50 and 59 and 37 students 60 and older. A study of the school's older learners five years ago found that most were white and married, with low to middle incomes. Their most common reasons for enrolling were an interest in a subject, a love of learning, and a desire to become more informed or confident.

None of these three women who graduated last month started with plans to earn a four-year degree. Each began by earning a certificate in gerontology through an intensive, one-year program targeted at older learners. Benkert learned about the Manning program in her church bulletin. Ryan and Presti, both recently retired after years of administrative work, read about it in the newspaper.

All three felt instantly drawn to the idea -- especially since the program, at that time, was free for seniors. Two of the women care for elderly parents, and hoped the training would help them. Ryan enrolled in 1999, Presti in 2000, and Benkert in 2002.

''When I read about it, I got so excited I ran outside and told my husband," said Presti, a mother of four who graduated from high school in Somerville in 1958 and married in 1961. ''After the first semester, I knew I would go further."

Impressed by her classmates, Presti said, she was reserved in class at first. What persuaded her to continue, she said, was ''the caring of the people" she had met.

''I want to use my education to give back," Presti said. She's not sure yet how she will contribute, but she said she's certain God will show her what to do.

For Ryan, perseverance followed encouragement. In her first class at UMass, she said, lecturer Kelly Matthews made her feel at home even though she was one of just two senior citizens. Urged to discuss their study habits, the students helped each other, and Ryan felt valued when she became a mentor to a younger woman.

A Dorchester native, Ryan went to a Catholic high school and never considered college. ''I was dying to go to work and earn some money so I could buy clothes," she said. When her husband died in 1987, three of Ryan's five children were in college. She went back to work full time, as a secretary at Gillette Co., and when she retired in 1998, ''I didn't want to stay home and do nothing," she said.

As she earned her gerontology certificate at UMass, professor Nina Silverstein urged Ryan to continue her education. ''At first I thought, 'I'm too old, I can't do that,' " Ryan said. ''I had been out of school for 50 years. But I talked about it with my kids, and they said, 'Go for it.' They all graduated, and I never let up on them."

With different reasons for starting the degree program, the three women may have finished, in part, because of each other. They developed a support group with other older students, and while they rarely socialized off campus, they often met for coffee before and after classes. The students supported one another through difficult times, including Presti's battle against cancer, which forced her to leave school for a year. ''We became a family," Benkert said. ''We were women of a certain age, sharing a common goal, and we needed this in our lives or we wouldn't be here."

The fulfillment of new friendships was matched by the satisfaction of academic discovery. An East Boston native who graduated from high school in 1957, married in 1960, and had her first child a year later, Benkert worked throughout her marriage at the family business. But she felt unprepared to tackle her first college paper, for a class called ''Dimensions of Learning and Critical Inquiry." Most of the other students had attended high school more recently, and it seemed like everyone but her knew the ropes.

''I remember lying in bed, and I didn't know how I was going to do it," she said. After she wrote her first paper, she was ecstatic.

The students moved from research papers to group projects and internships, and branched out to explore extracurricular interests. Presti joined the peer advising program on campus, where she bonded with younger students, and Benkert became host of a monthly TV show for elderly viewers sponsored by the university's Gerontology Institute.

Two of the women plan to be back at UMass this fall. Benkert will begin work on a master's degree in gerontology with a concentration in management, and Presti expects to pursue a master's in human services with a concentration in gerontology. ''My best friend said to me recently, 'You have changed so much,' " said Presti. ''I've been giving strong opinions about current events, which I wouldn't have done before."

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