Lifelong Learners

The GSU-62 program provides free tuition to students nearing retirement age and older, and invites them to rediscover of the power of education

For all of its 100 years, Georgia State has been a destination for what college admissions offices call the non-traditional student, those who hold down jobs, have kids or went to work after high school, then decided on college later in life. Or, in some cases, such as with the 205 students at Georgia State using the GSU-62 program, much later in life.

In 1978, the Georgia Legislature passed a bill allowing Georgians over the age of 65 to attend colleges and universities in the University System of Georgia for free. In 1993, the law was amended and reduced the minimum age to 62. Since, 790 students over the age 62 have enrolled at Georgia State and were eligible to continue or begin their college education for free.

For these three program participants, all of whom achieved remarkable professional success before returning to school, their experiences in higher education at Georgia State have taken each down a new, unexpected path.

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Artists are known for being nonconformists. Temme Barkin-Leeds (M.A. ’78, B.F.A. ‘09), for example, earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Georgia State after she got her master’s in art history a long time after. About a quarter-century, in fact.

“When I went back to Georgia State, people said, ‘You’re gonna be 72 years old when you graduate,’” she says. “I said, ‘You know what, I’m gonna be 72 anyway, whether I graduate or not! So why not go and do the things I feel like I have a passion to do?’”

In Barkin-Leeds’ case, that passion had been incubating for a long time. She’d wanted to be an artist since she was a teenager, but when she started graduate school in the 1970s, she was a recently divorced mother who knew she’d need a stable career to support her three kids. Her art history degree from Georgia State helped her get a job as the High Museum’s associate curator for education, then embark on a 21-year career running a successful art consulting firm.

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Temme Barkin-Leeds

The whole time, though, “I secretly made art on the side whenever I could,” she says. When she found out about the GSU-62 program, she decided it was time for that creative side to get its moment in the limelight.

Barkin-Leeds says she wasn’t nervous as she returned to the Georgia State campus to pursue a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.

“Frankly,” she says, “I found that it was really enriching to be around younger people, because they had ideas about things that, in many cases, I might not have thought of. I was really learning from them all the time, and I hope they were learning something from me as well.”

Her confidence wasn’t misplaced.

“It was really a wonderful program,” she says. “The faculty never showed any bias toward the older students or toward the younger students. I was always treated completely fairly and treated very much the way the other students were in terms of expectations and demands.”

Since her return to Georgia State in 2005, Barkin-Leeds has participated in more than 40 exhibitions all over the eastern United States. She also earned a master’s degree in fine art (MFA) from American University in 2012. Her most recent solo show, called “Interference,” exhibited at Atlanta’s Callanwolde Fine Arts Center throughout the spring. It involved a series of paintings and animations representing Barkin-Leeds’ reaction to violent shooter-style video games.

Her GSU-62 experience, she says, not only put her in position to pursue an MFA but showed her how her experience as an art historian could enrich her work.

“As an art historian, you see art in the context of its era and its environment, its social and political context, and you realize that it is a reflection of that society,” she explains. “There was a very well-known African-American artist named Benny Andrews who was head of the artists’ program at the National Endowment for the Arts for many years, and I was lucky to know him. He e said to me, ‘If you’re going to make art, have something to say.’ So I’ve always had this passion for making work that has a certain kind of message to convey.”

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Rick Tigner is a man with a taste for adventure. The longtime financial planner, Air Force Officer and world traveler— he’s been to 52 countries and all seven continents — was on one of his jaunts on the other side of the planet when he decided he’d embark on what might be his biggest adventure yet.

In 2009, Tigner remembers being atop a 150-foot cliff near the town Katoomba, New South Wales, Australia. The then-61-year-old was learning how to abseil — an Australian style of rappelling.

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Rick Tigner

“This Australian fellow just kept saying, ‘back up, back up, keep your legs under you,’” he says. “And I thought right then, if I have the guts to lower myself over this cliff, then I have the guts to come back and tell my business partner that I’m coming back to retire.”

He was true to his word, came back and drafted retirement plans on March 1, 2010. A few days later he had an epiphany of what to do with his newly found freedom.

“I sat straight up in bed and said, ‘I can go back to school!’”

Tigner, who earned a mathematics degree from Duke University in 1970, decided to revisit the school that was growing up around him when he worked for Citizens and Southern National Bank. The building he worked in is now home to the J. Mack Robinson College of Business.

“I’ve been a businessman for 40 years, so I didn’t want to study business,” he says. “I wanted to do something that I developed an interest in later in life.”

He signed up to audit classes in astronomy, geology, anthropology and modern art history.

“That’s when an admissions counselor told me about the GSU-62 program,” he says. “And it was another one of those moments. ‘You mean I can do this for free?’”

Tigner dove headlong into “subjects that I never got to really enjoy as an undergraduate,” he said. Being back in an academic environment was invigorating for Tigner.

“I had no idea I’d get so much satisfaction interacting with my fellow students,” he says. “I was really impressed by the student body. They were there to learn. They really wanted to know what they were studying, not just get a piece of paper.”

Around that time, Tigner was thinking of how to give back, how to cement his legacy, and began to look into becoming a mentor to students. Tigner went back to Duke, his alma mater, and began mentoring recent graduates.

“Georgia State just appealed to me the most because of the kind of students I met in my classes,” he says.

The Robinson College typically only invites alumni to become mentors but made an exception in Tigner’s case.

“He is passionate about helping students succeed. We knew immediately he would be a great mentor for our students, and he has been,” says Monica Scarborough, senior director of development, who manages the program for the college.

For two semesters, Tigner mentored Dylan Crumbly (B.B.A. ’15), an Honors student majoring in managerial science with a minor in Spanish, and will be paired with another student this fall.

“Rick and I have continued our relationship past the required meetings for the program,” Crumbly says. “Our mentoring period ended a year ago, but we still meet up, text and email. I am happy to not only call Rick a mentor, but a friend as well.”

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The average student takes a little more than four years to graduate from college. For Robert Brennan (B.A. ’14), it took longer. A lot longer.

“I left college in 1959,” says Brennan. “I picked up where I left off.”

The 85-year-old Brennan served in the Korean War, earning a Purple Heart, a Battle Star and several campaign ribbons. When he returned home, he went to college on the GI Bill.

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Robert Brennan

But a good job offer lured him away from campus and put him on a path to an impressive career in the media industry.

“I started out doing TV newsreels for movie theaters that would play before the movie started,” he says. “I worked at CBS, and then I became a producer in New York.”

Before long, he became the southern bureau manager for CBS, based in Atlanta during the tumultuous 1960s. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, Brennan covered the story.

“We got the call, and we were there as soon as we could be,” he says. “We were there that night and we were there for the funeral.”

His close ties to the political community in Atlanta led to a position in the Chamber of Commerce in 1976, where he met a visiting Olympic athlete.

“He was on the Olympic handball team that had played in Montreal and Munich. He said to me, ‘You know, Atlanta should host the games.’ And I thought it was a great idea. I did the research and I found out that we could do it, but nobody bought it,” Brennan says. “It just seemed too expensive.”

He didn’t give up. Almost a decade later, he sat on the committee that put in a bid to host the Olympics. When Atlanta won, he was made press chief.

After the Games ended in 1996, Brennan retired, spending the next decade volunteering with Atlanta organizations, including the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.

“Then I heard about the GSU-62 program,” he says. “That was very attractive to me. It gave me the idea that I could go back to school.”

Despite failing eyesight, Brennan persevered in his studies. For his final project, he worked with English Professor Pearl McHaney and lecturer Dan Marshall in a two-semester directed reading focusing on contemporary memoir and autobiography, while at the same time writing a memoir of his remarkable life. His working title is “Splits: The Times of My Life.”

This past summer, he graduated summa cum laude with his English degree.

“My children have been encouraging me all along,” he says. “This has been such a rewarding experience. Georgia State is a fascinating place.”

McHaney, who is also associate dean for the fine arts, was one of the first to read his life stories.

“I am a lucky reader,” she says. “Bob is a wonderful person with so many stories to tell.”

For Brennan, the fact that McHaney is still offering her support and advice is a telling trait of his alma mater.

“That’s what I find so remarkable about this school,” Brennan says. “They’re sticking with me even after I graduated.”

Photography by Andrew Thomas Lee