The Nassau Community College campus is like an ant colony in motion this morning as Lillyan Gitnik gets off the ABLE Ride bus near Building G. Gitnik, who is one of NCC's oldest students (if not the oldest), turned 90 earlier this month and has been making this trip to audit classes at the college for the past 25 years. Everyone seems headed in different directions as Gitnik walks purposefully up the handicapped ramp of the building where her 10 a.m. class meets.
Gitnik's appearance is in stark contrast to the rest of the student body. Most of her younger colleagues are clad in jeans, sweatshirts and headphones, mirroring the attire on most campuses. Gitnik's outfit is a bit more formal; she dresses the way people used to when they were leaving the house for a doctor's appointment, dinner at a restaurant or going to the movies. Today, she's in a coordinated mosaic of pastels; flower print blouse and slacks in lilac, her favorite color.
The young crowd looks half asleep, holding coffee cups as they robotically head for classes. But Gitnik has been awake for hours. "I get up at the crack of dawn," she says as she boards the elevator to the third floor.
A graduate of Jamaica High School, where she was an honors student, Gitnik, a longtime resident of East Meadow, worked for a bit before getting married and raising two children. College was on the back burner until her husband, Milton, retired. That's when they both started auditing classes through NCC's Senior Observer Program. Milton Gitnik attended classes until his death at age 90. And in the quarter century she's been registering for classes, Gitnik has taken classes in psychology, sociology, communication, English, biology, history, the Bible, philosophy and economics.
Thirst for knowledge doesn't necessarily end after graduation, a longtime career, raising a family or even after decades of retirement. For some Long Islanders, learning new things in a college environment is the perfect stimulation they want and need in their 60s and beyond.
Gitnik's routine is to audit one class a semester, do no homework, buy no textbooks ("they're far too expensive") and let the paying students have first crack at answering questions posed by the professor. "The company is great," says Gitnik, who has four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. "I don't do tests. I enjoy it, nevertheless. Whatever I learn is that much more than I know now."
As she walks into professor Angela Tigner's psychology class, Gitnik is greeted warmly by fellow students. "Hey, Lillyan," Tigner says with a smile. Gitnik slides into a seat at the L-shaped table, and Tigner begins lecturing on the nervous system and the eye. Gitnik participates in the class discussion, and sprinkles in a few quips. At one point, she cracks, "I'm hep and I'm hip, which isn't bad for 90." Even with the dated slang, the other students get the point and laugh with her.
Esther Goldman, 24, of Fresh Meadows, Queens, is one of Gitnik's classmates -- and is also one of her fans. "We are all friends with her," Goldman says after class. "It's great for her to come back and keep learning."
David Belsky, spokesman for the State University of New York, says residents 60 and older can audit classes at SUNY's four-year schools on Long Island: Stony Brook University, Old Westbury State College and Farmingdale State College. Nassau Community College in East Garden City and Suffolk County Community College are part of the state system but have their own auditing policies (see box).
SUNY Old Westbury spokesman Michael Kinane said that after paying a $10 vehicle registration fee, seniors have pretty much a free ride to audit classes with no tuition, no credit granted, no homework or test requirements. No formal record is kept of the student's participation or performance in the course. So you can never get an F, and that suits the older students just fine.
"The seniors don't want credit, they just want to learn," says Henry Sikorski, chief development officer at Farmingdale State College, who oversees the senior audit program. There's a $50 registration fee and seniors can audit only one class per semester.
Often, the older students sit in on courses they couldn't take when they were majoring in business or education in college the first time around. Auditing gives them a chance to explore new fields and interests. "Some folks who were in manufacturing took a class in visual communications and art appreciation," he says. Sikorski notes that auditing classes could have another benefit for some: Studies have shown that continuously stimulating the mind may delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
An elementary school teacher in Woodside, Queens, for 34 years, Horowitz retired in 2005. She has three children and a master's degree from Brooklyn College, but she wanted more as she entered her 60s. So far, she's taken 10 courses, most of them in the art department, and she displays the ceramics she's made in her home. Now, she says, it's time to work the left side of her brain, and she will be taking a film and literature class at Nassau Community College. "I'm trying to direct myself to courses that are a little more cerebral at this point so I keep my brain waves active," she says.
Being among younger people has its merits, but differences between the generations can also draw unsolicited criticism. While Gitnik doesn't expect male students to don jackets and ties to class, she frowns upon young men who wear hats in class (especially with the brims turned backward), low-slung jeans, girls with tattoos and pierced belly buttons.
And it's her opinion that students in the psychology class she's taking seem to have a stronger interest in learning than the young colleagues in other classes she's taken. "I've been to class where the students have been not that attentive. They'll sit in the back of the classroom, thumbing through a magazine." Neither is she fond of student conversations peppered with expletives. "When I hear the swear word, I make mention of it, and they're surprised that I do," Gitnik says.
Overall, she takes those differences in stride and is enjoying her winter college years. And she's not planning to stop anytime soon, though her options are dwindling each semester because she has taken so many classes in almost every discipline. "I'm running out of courses," she says.
Auditing a course is one of the better educational bargains to be had on Long Island. You can choose from a wide range of classes in numerous disciplines such as history, psychology, the arts and more. But there are restrictions. For instance, at Farmingdale State University, classes can be audited only during the fall and spring semesters. Only one class can be audited per semester, no weekend classes can be audited and registration is required for each course. In many cases, permission is needed from the instructor. In all cases, no college credit is awarded.
At Stony Brook University, people 60 and older can audit during the fall and spring terms, on a space-available basis. (If the course is full, you'll have to pick something else.) You'll also need permission from the instructor to sit in on the class, and you'll pay a $50 registration fee.
At SUNY College at Old Westbury, auditing students also must obtain the instructor's permission. "We do not limit the number of courses someone may audit," says campus spokesman Michael Kinane. Auditors are required to pay only the annual campus vehicle registration fee of $10, he says.
Farmingdale State College also charges the $50 fee per semester for its senior auditing program.
Check with private institutions, such as Dowling and Adelphi, for their auditing policies.
For more details at public colleges on Long Island, call:
Stony Brook University, 631-632-6554
SUNY College at Old Westbury, 516-876-3040
Farmingdale State College, 631-420-2142
Nassau Community College, 516-572-7501
Suffolk County Community College, 631-451-4110