This summer, Joan Johnson found herself studying for academic courses for the first time since she graduated from Cornell University in 1965.
MIDDLEBURY — The 80-year-old was a student in the School of French at the Middlebury Language Schools.
A successful businesswoman and Cornell grad, Johnson is no stranger to hard work. However, she found it challenging.
“I knew it was going to be hard,” she said. “They’re (the college) very clear about how hard it’s going to be. However, I didn’t realize it was going to be as hard as it turned out to be.”
Each summer, the institution admits a small population of students aged 65 and older to participate in the language program, which is known for its diverse age-range, academic rigor and strict language pledge that requires students to adhere to a policy of speaking exclusively their language of study for the duration of the program.
Of the 5,366 students admitted across all of the language programs this summer, 47 students aged 65+ attended.
Why Did Joan Johnson Decide to Learn French?
In her suite in the Atwater dorm, one of a few that gets viciously vied for during the housing draw amongst academic-year students, Johnson pursued the program as a way to remain close to her deceased daughter through her passion: French.
“My natural daughter died in Paris when she was 29 … She is always on my shoulders. She was fluent in French. And truthfully, my love of the language started with her.”
“She said, ‘Oh, mom, you know, we’ll be able to speak French. And we’ll do trips together.’ And so I started,” Johnson said.
She travels to Paris for a month every year to celebrate her daughter’s life.
“I’ve gone for 15 years now.”
Johnson, who entered the program at a 2.5 level of a maximum of 4, was determined to achieve fluency.
LEARN FRENCH! LIKE SHE DID.
“That really has not happened, and I think part of it may be that I am too hard on myself. It’s hard to get (words) out when you want it to be perfect. And the opportunities for engaging are certainly there. We’ve signed the language pledge. And pretty much I think most people have tried to truly honor it.”
Going into the program, Johnson had insights into difficulties it was possible she would encounter, as a 15-year participant in the aging brain study at Harvard University.
“I’m still totally on point … But the one thing that has been acknowledged by Harvard … we are aging and our brains aren’t as quick as they used to be.”
She said she and her older peers discussed their worries.
“So the angst for those of us I think, who are older … is the information is coming so fast.”
Johnson noted that even her younger peers reported feeling the fast pace of the program.
“There needs to be a little bit more time for everybody, not just for me as an older person, and for the absorption,” she said.
How She Did It?
In order to keep up, Johnson adopted a classic college study schedule, working late into the night. At first, she was left with just three to four hours of sleep a night, something she quickly realized was not sustainable.
However, she was effusive in her gratitude to the professors and faculty that supported her adjustment to a more reasonable schedule.
“They would be understanding of me when I said I just don’t have all the homework done,” she explained.
“I ended up having their understanding that if in the classroom setting, I said, I didn’t get to number three on page 89 that we were supposed to prepare for this class.”
“My teachers were just more than fabulous,” she effused.
Suzanne Cox, 73, was one of Johnson’s suitemates. Cox was used to the pace when she arrived at Middlebury.
For Cox, a summer student pursuing the master’s program, academia has been a life-long passion. She is an assistant Spanish Professor at George Mason University, retired businesswoman and Wellesley College alumna.
Cox said it came as no surprise to her three daughters that she was pursuing the program.
“I will say to them, ‘Oh, I have an oral exposé tomorrow. I have a test tomorrow’ … and they’ll go, ‘Mom, why are you doing that?’”
“It’s just that when it’s over, I feel so good. I feel enriched.”
Cox had just completed her final evaluations a day before we spoke, but already she was back working. She explained that her computer, which was open on the table when we spoke, was there because she had been doing work tutoring a student, one side-hustle she pursues.
She said she didn’t think twice about her age while in Middlebury’s French program.
“I’m aware that (other students) are younger than my children. But I never think about that. I just never think about it,” Cox said. “It’s not a thing with me.”
Stephane Chapman Experience
One of their peers, Stephane Chapman, had a similar experience to Cox. The Vietnam War veteran, Michigan State University alumnus and retired network engineer, said he didn’t find the adjustment back to homework challenging.
However, like Johnson noted, it took Chapman more time to learn material than his younger peers:
“When you’re learning a language and you’re 20-something, it’s not a problem to do the homework for the next day, in that afternoon or that evening. When you’re 73, you don’t learn as fast. And you have to do more iterations of exercises to really get it in your head.”
“So where it might have taken somebody else two to four hours to do their homework, it took me six or eight,” Chapman continued. “So to get that six or eight, I would take a nap in the afternoons, get up, I’d work till 10 o’clock at night, I would get up at 4:30 in the morning, and I would work till 7:30 in the morning, and then I would go to my first class.”
Middlebury Offers the Best Experience
But before considering the best study tactics, he first had to get into the program.
“When I applied to Middlebury Language Schools, I fully expected to get an are-you-kidding-me letter,’” he quipped.
Like Johnson and Cox, Chapman had also been acquainted with the language. He entered the program at the intermediate level.
He plans to use his improved French language proficiency as a volunteer.
“I already had a relationship with a charitable organization called Doctors Without Borders [Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF, in French],” he said. “And they have jobs posted, where you would go to a Northern African French [speaking] country, like Sudan, or Cote d’Ivoire, or some of those other smaller countries, and you would assist the doctors. You take a lot of the load off of them for the routine things they have to do.”
However, there was one problem; he had not achieved the level of proficiency in French required for the position.
“Well, coming to Middlebury, that happened,” he said.
Now, he’s preparing to travel to France for an orientation with the program.
“Here I am, 73, and I’ve got this treasure chest, and I’m not quite sure what to do with it,” he said.
“Because if they’ll take me over at MSF and send me to Africa, I’m going.”
Article featured in the Addison County Independent, August 24, 2023.