Five alumnae settle into the Alumni Memorial Union for a regular lunch date. Over grilled chicken sandwiches, they talk about African-American literature and comparative politics. The diners seem primed for a stroll down memory lane, but the backpacks draped over their chairs signal something else is happening.
By Jessie Bazan, Comm ’14
The ladies aren’t reminiscing about the good old days. They are reporting on the good new ones. These graduates are back and hitting the books, thanks to the Alumni in the Classroom program offered by the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences. Alumni of the college who graduated before 1969 are eligible to enroll each semester in a slate of 10 to 12 courses on topics ranging from history to theology to political science. The classes fill quickly because alumni love coming home, according to Mary Dunnwald, former director of the program and associate dean for academic business affairs in the college.
While the professor pulls up the day’s PowerPoint lecture, Eileen Johannsen, Arts ’60, Grad ’62, scans the online learning site to review the list of assigned readings. The content was a little confusing, she admits, but thanks to email, the professor was able to clarify things quickly. The online discussion board enabled more classmates to post and respond to each other’s questions. Adele Hanson, Arts ’48, admits today’s classroom gadgets take a little time to conquer. “Our technology consisted of maybe tape recording something, but I don’t even think there was much of that going on,” she says. “You had to be pretty rich to have a tape recorder.”
The core of university life remains timeless, according to returning alumni. It doesn’t take long for a classroom of 20-somethings and 70-somethings to gel. In fact, between chatting about homework and Marquette basketball, the generations find they share quite a bit in common.
“Once the undergrads know we are just as interested in the course material as they are, and we are interested in them as people, they warm up to us,” says Johannsen.
What’s the difference between the League of Nations and the United Nations? Hanson smiles. The answer to the professor’s question is obvious to her. The agencies were front-page news while Hanson was growing up, but her young classmates are stumped. After a moment of silence, Hanson raises her hand. “We help explain it to the kids,” she says. “We are like their grandparents.”
Jokes about age help break the ice. “During a history class, the professor held up a picture of 19th-century poet Henry Longfellow,” recalls Dennis Sage, Arts ’64, Law ’57. “He asked: ‘Anybody know who this is?’ No one knew. One of the alumni finally cracked, ‘Yeah, that’s Henry Longfellow. I went to grade school with him.’”
Political science professor Dr. Barrett McCormick asks his Politics of the Internet class a simple question: How did people function before the computer? Textbooks flip open and students scour the pages for signs of life pre-PC. Soon, McCormick nods to Johannsen, a retired high school teacher, for support. “These students grew up with the Internet,” Johannsen explains. “For them, many of the things I explain to them are so foreign. Some of them don’t know what a typewriter was — seriously,” she says and laughs.
Alumni bring worldly perspectives to class discussions. Some were alive when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Some remember going to Mass when it was celebrated in Latin. The alumni can speak to Marquette’s past, too. English professor Dr. Jodi Melamed says alumni function as eyewitnesses to history. “Our discussions of race relations encompassed the Marquette campus, and alumni were able to witness similarities and differences in race relations among students from the 1960s until today,” Melamed says.
With their wealth of knowledge, alumni may be recruited first for group projects. Sage, for instance, practiced law for 44 years. When his Applied History class group began creating an e-book about the demolition of the Elizabeth Plankinton Mansion that once stood on the corner of North 14th Street and West Wisconsin Avenue, near the spot occupied by McCormick Hall, Sage was pretty comfortable. “Because there were a lot of legal papers that had to be read, I took on that challenge and went through all the lawsuits that were involved in the demolition,” he says.
The undergraduates provide a window on today’s popular culture. Michael Pikuleff, Arts ’60, Grad ’64, saw it in his History of Rock and Roll class, where Elvis and the Beatles have made way for John Legend and Bastille. “The professor asked us at the beginning of the semester to name our favorite rock album and, during the course of the semester, he’d mention ones that were chosen and talk a little about them,” Pikuleff says. “They ran the whole spectrum from blues to rap and R&B. It was quite a learning experience for me to compare and share music.”
But the ingenuity of today’s undergraduates may be best displayed through their covert communication strategies. “I’ve never texted during class, but I enjoy watching the students,” Johannsen admits.
Professors rave about the Alumni in the Classroom program. Dr. John Krugler, professor emeritus of history, thinks alumni are a testament to the value of lifelong learning. “On one of the first days of class, I tell the undergrads that Marquette has a slogan that states, ‘Education for a lifetime,’” he says. “Most slogans are just that — slogans. But now you see with these two or three alumni in this classroom that this is the embodiment of that slogan. These alumni sign up for class and they don’t get any credit for it. They are here because they want to learn.”
Hanson agrees. “We want the classes. We want the camaraderie. We want the friendship,” she says. “We want to be on campus and be a part of Marquette. That’s important to all of us.”