The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

At Penn, our day-to-day exists in a generation vacuum. For four years of our lives, we eat, breath, sleep, study and think surrounded strictly by twenty-somethings. Baby-boomers (known as our professors) occasionally break the monotony of our eerily exclusive environment. And even the out-of-place sound of a baby crying on the street outside my window is enough to make me glance outside, surprised. But on the first day of classes this semester, the generation vacuum broke -- hard, fast and abruptly. I walked into History 128: Europe after 1945, to find a lecture hall filled with senior citizens. I looked at my schedule. Yes, this was the right room. "Morrie, save me and Dottie a seat, wouldja?" Right room, wrong planet. It was like some sort of bizarre alien invasion I saw once on an experimental documentary at my brother's art school -- like old people had decided to take over the world and no one had informed me of the coup d'etat. I felt grossly out of place. I looked frantically around the room for someone my own age to sit with -- anyone. I finally settled comfortably next to another random student and we exchanged silent, but confident, "Oh, we'll win" glances. Surely, We would be "safe" from Them sitting over here. When it was time for the class to begin, the room looked evenly split: half of Them, half of Us. They sat in the front. We sat in the back. Oh, make no mistake -- it would be a fair fight indeed. But as the semester wore on and my schedule changed, I was deprived the luxury of arriving to class early enough to secure a seat away from Them. So against my will, I changed my seat. To the front of the room and dangerously close to Them. As I walked to the front of the room, everything began to change -- the closer I crept to the front, the stronger the elderly smell of old leather gloves and newspapers became, and the more mild the mixed smells of undergraduates' cologne and perfume. The sea of undergraduate faces blemished by acne transformed into a sea of senior citizens' faces blemished by time. And then my false perceptions and unwarranted suspicion of the senior citizens began to transform as well. I had crossed into The Other Zone. Weeks passed, and The Other Zone became my new zone. I began to sit regularly with Al, a 74- year-old toy manufacturer, and his wife Penny. I learned about their family, how they fit Penn into their lives and why they chose to take the class. Once the senior citizens surrounding us saw that I was friendly, they grew interested, and wanted to play with the Invader. One woman and I spoke about classes we had taken, professors we had liked and disliked and with whom I should take an art history course next semester (she disapproved of my original choice). I helped another man get onto the Web site for our class, and he suggested a book to me that would help with my paper. And next week, Al and Penny and I are going out to dinner with another undergraduate. But the leap over the generation gap wasn't only individual. The professor of the course, fully aware that the demographic of the class was so unusual, catered the class to fit everyone's needs. Each senior citizen was paired up with a student, with whom they could discuss the history the senior citizens had lived through, which students had only read about. Everyone's educational needs would be met; senior citizens' desire to see a retrospective analysis of the era they had lived through and undergraduates' desire to learn about history in a compelling, personal and serious way. At the beginning of the semester, I had feared sitting next to the senior citizens. As the semester nears its close, it has genuinely become one of the highlights of my undergraduate career. Professors at Penn need to follow this lead. Penn's academic community needs more professors and students who are willing to experiment with their classes, tailor their coursework and play with new ideas rather than support the status quo. If history can be brought to life by an innovative program that encourages dialogue between undergraduates and senior citizens, Penn's academic life too can be refreshed by similar programs tailored to meet the specific academic needs of the specific students in the classroom. Educational or generational, there is a desperate need at Penn to supercede the gap. Now's the time for a creation of a real Other Zone.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.