Penelope Sablack has eased into college life halfway through her first semester at Kutztown University. She has a profile on Facebook (what...
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Penelope Sablack has eased into college life halfway through her first semester at Kutztown University.
She has a profile on Facebook (what college student doesn’t?), a campus job at the Health and Wellness Center, a full load of classes and a solid grasp on roommate etiquette.
She maybe went a little overboard on college spirit with the early deposit she put on her 2008 class ring.
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Other than that, life is pretty typical for Sablack — even if she is more than 40 years older than her classmates.
“I never thought I looked my age,” said the 64-year-old mother of four and grandmother of six while chatting with acquaintances between classes in the Student Union Building.
“I still don’t. But I guess I don’t look 18 or 20. I’m even older than the professors.”
Older, getting wiser
Sablack is one of many older Americans attending college. At Kutztown alone, there are 13 other students older than 60 enrolled in the university’s Advant*Age, program which makes it possible for retired people to take courses in a variety of academic areas and to earn college credits at no cost.
But Sablack is not an Advant*Age student. She is enrolled as a full-time, full-paying student, living in a campus apartment she shares with another student.
Her roommate, Elena Ilie, a 23-year-old exchange student from the Netherlands, said she was surprised, shocked even, when she learned Sablack was old enough to be her grandmother.
“Once I knew, it was really no problem,” Ilie said. “I’m really excited about living with Penelope. Have you met her? She’s really a great person. She’s funny, and down to earth. When I go out, she goes to bed. When I go to bed, she’s getting up for the day.
“She doesn’t have a problem with loud music, either. She’s very kind and generous.”
A different course
College was out of the question for Sablack when she was the age of most college students. By 21, Sablack was married and had given birth to three of her four children.
When her marriage ended in the mid 1970s, she moved her children to northern New Jersey and got a job as a hospital clerk.
She worked several other jobs as well. She was an administrative assistant and started a word-processing business to supplement her income.
In the late 1980s, after her children were grown, she moved to Warminster, Pa., and ended up in the medical field again. She retired from Doylestown Hospital after 10 years as a medical transcriptionist in 1998.
With time on her hands, Sablack signed up for two photography classes at Bucks County Community College, and before long she had four college credits.
Once she got a taste of college life, she decided to pursue a degree.
It took her awhile — she took courses over 17 semesters — but she graduated in 2005 with an associate’s degree in liberal arts and a certificate in women’s studies.
After graduation, she couldn’t imagine not moving forward, and set her sights on Kutztown because she liked the country setting and the affordability of a state school.
“They accepted 64 of my credits and made me a full-fledged junior,” Sablack said.
Living and learning
Sablack had developed a passion for women’s issues when she took her first English Composition course at the community college. A professor there talked a lot about women’s rights and women’s studies.
“The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. I lived through a lot of the issues we talked about, including domestic abuse, not physical, but other abuse,” she said.
“When I was a young woman, I never sought help. I didn’t know there was help. I want to be able to alert women, whatever their age, about what’s available.”
After being accepted to Kutztown, Sablack declared English professional writing as her major with a minor in women’s studies.
Wanting the full college experience, she opted to live on campus in a two-bedroom apartment.
At first, Sablack was worried about how Ilie and other students would view her. She didn’t want to come across as a doting grandparent. She wanted Ilie to act no differently around her than she would with students her own age.
So far, that seems to be the case. “I have a lot of international friends,” Ilie said. “They’re always talking to her. We invite her to go out and she always says, ‘Maybe next time,’ ” Ilie said.
Sablack is up early every day. She’s one of the first students in the student lounge reading The New York Times and drinking coffee. Class assignments, she said, are always done the night before.
“She reads the paper a lot more than the rest of us,” said David Elliott, a 21-year-old journalism student who shares a class with Sablack.
“She even has the paper highlighted. I’m always jealous,” he said.
Plans for the future
Ultimately, Sablack said, she would like to write about issues involving women and go for her master’s degree.
“I want to bring out the good stuff, too (about women’s issues). I would love to go into a prison and be a mentor. With whatever time I have left, I want to make a difference in some way in women’s lives.”
As for her experiences with the younger set?
“I don’t preach, but I could,” she said.
“But the students, they’re great. They’re very respectful. They just accept you for who you are. They don’t care about (age) stuff like that.”