When antique shop owner Paul Thien lost his partner five years ago, he felt empty and directionless.
“Then a lightning bolt hit me,” he says. “I [thought], I want to get my master’s degree. I felt if I went back to school, I could somehow vindicate my foolish years.”
Meg Kane-Smith taught theology for 23 years at Ursuline Academy before she retired. She also decided she wanted to earn a master’s, and perhaps a second career in museum or archeological work. But mostly, she says, “I’m using MALS for enrichment. I do love to learn.”
Thien and Kane-Smith are both students in UD’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) program, catering to older students—many of them retirees—who want to do more than enroll in an occasional class. These students are willing to spend up to four years to earn a graduate degree—or, in some cases, a second or third one.
MALS is an accredited course within the university’s College of Arts & Sciences that requires 30 hours of credits, mostly attained through a combination of seminars (with small class sizes) and a thesis or master’s project. The program is an affiliate of the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs and is offered at about 60 other colleges and universities.
Tara Kee, who recently retired as MALS’ administrative head and is credited with revitalizing the program over the last few years, recalls, “MALS students who are retired from their first profession tell us that they now—finally—have the opportunity to study the things that interest them most.…I always said that the commonalities among MALS students are intellectual curiosity and love of learning. Their interests are all different [and] their thought processes and ways of learning vary, but they love to learn.”
The Delaware program began in the 1950s and through the years has been “catnip” for seniors—about 70 at one time—who want both the classroom challenge and possibly a retirement career they can’t attain from continuing education lectures, MALS director Karen Rosenberg explains.
Classes are typically taught on weekday evenings on the Newark campus. However, as a result of the pandemic when everything became virtual, the new expectation is that some courses will continue to be offered online, especially for students who have a long commute. “We would like to have a greater presence in southern Delaware, and this should help,” Rosenberg says.
Mainly oriented toward the humanities with targeted areas of study in literature, music, the arts, sociology and anthropology, courses are taught by current faculty members or emeritus faculty. There are currently about 20 teachers.
Once into the program, students seek out advisers who will oversee their thesis or project. While many students opt to take a wide variety of subjects, those with specialized interests can concurrently earn a certificate of study in addition to the master’s degree in five study areas: museum, Africana, community involvement, women and gender, and historic preservation.
Jim Culley, a former academician and business executive, was interested in archival work through his parents’ involvement in the once-thriving corporate and industrial films business and decided to work on his master’s project at Hagley Museum and Library, which led to him performing post-graduate work there.
“My MALS experience evolved into a volunteer job working with the Hagley Library staff to preserve and post online over 6,000 reels of film and hundreds of scripts, production photos and company records,” he says.
Kane-Smith took advantage of a different opportunity: the ability to take a limited number of daytime classes in the UD catalog outside the MALS curriculum. “I liked being with the younger students, and in one class we did archeology work at Cooch’s Bridge [Battlefield] with 13 younger students and two of us MALS students,” she says.
While MALS students are mostly senior, not all are retired. Student Kellie Melba is head of human resources at UD’s police department. “I always wanted to get my master’s and I was attracted to the interdisciplinary aspect—I wanted to stretch my brain,” says Melba, who adds the timing was right after raising four children.
“MALS students who are retired from their first profession tell us that they now—finally—have the opportunity to study the things that interest them most.”
Professor Sujata Bhatia, a physician and biochemical engineer who was on Harvard’s faculty before coming to Delaware, says MALS students are among the most curious, engaged and intellectual students on campus. They also bring a wealth of life experiences to the classroom.
“When I bring MALS students into the classroom together with undergraduates,” Bhatia says, “the MALS students will describe their own rich memories of raising children, fighting in wars, protesting wars and entering the workforce. [They] are idealists who still enjoy reading and quoting from literature and attending the theater, and they recognize that the true purpose of education is to expand the mind.”
The biggest incentive, which puts the program in high demand, is that the state of Delaware covers tuition for residents over 60. The only caveat: They must be enrolled in a degree program, not just random courses. (Although neither exercise is formidable, prospective students must first submit an essay explaining why they want to enroll and have an entry interview before being accepted.)
As for Paul Thien, he now has 18 hours of classes completed and says he is still enthusiastic about his decision. “Now I’m into…constructing a catalogue raisoné of the works of regional sculptor [the late] André Harvey.”
As with others in MALS, upcoming awards and graduation ceremonies will not be the end of an intellectual quest but a lifelong continuation.