With the deadline looming to select my Senior Scholar course for next term, I sit with pages of the university’s academic catalog arrayed about me. My undergraduate peers at UCLA are choosing their classes after consulting a handy website that reviews professors as if they were products, but I simply print out the pages of my top choices. As a Senior Scholar, I am not limited by prerequisites or frightened of tough graders. It is a delicious and new thing, to be concerned only with my own intellectual pleasures. That I must limit myself to a single course saddens me, though; I feel like a child who can choose only one birthday gift. I’m greedy to learn more, to fill in so many gaps in my formal education.
A friend who knows me well is shocked when I consider taking “Cosmology: Origin, History and Fate of Universe.” She texts, “Weren’t you a French major in undergrad?” I reply with a verse from one of my favorite Psalms. “Make known to me your ways, LORD; teach me your paths” (Ps 25:4). The fact that I can barely make my way through the course description without consulting Wikipedia, however, eventually scares me off.
My husband’s hilarious suggestion that I audit “Scandinavian 138: Vikings” is ignored, and I forgo “Introduction to Screenwriting.” It’s being taught via Zoom and after all the lockdowns, I desire a lecture hall; I prefer to be present. In the end, I apply for “History of Popular Music,” a class melding two of my passions. When another Senior Scholar I know decides to join me in the class, I imagine us taking walks across the quad, discussing what we’ve learned while younger students zip by us on skateboards, chasing their schedules.
Submitting my class choices, I couldn’t help but contemplate all the high school seniors who are fretting over college applications. At their age, I’d applied to two colleges, both selected by my parents. I enjoyed my major and used my electives to study Russian and pursue a second major in political science. Back then, I took basic math and science courses to meet degree requirements. I wasn’t as concerned with looking for knowledge as I am now. I just wanted the easiest path to a degree.
While I regret none of my life decisions, I’ve often longed for the chance to have a do-over at my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. What a joy it would be to go back and study theology, to revel in philosophy and to lose myself in the stacks of the Hesburgh Libraries. With one term as a Senior Scholar under my belt, I see how being set free of the pressures of grades and homework has made me a better student — one far more interested in everything and aware of what a blessing it is to be able to study, at all. To read and listen and ponder.
My initial interest in campus life was health related. Studies show that lifelong learning can be associated with better memory and cognitive skills, improved mood, and better health and well-being. My recently deceased parents faced unique battles with early dementia, so I am vitally interested in promoting my own brain health. But I discovered quickly last term that what had me up at night, poring over my textbooks or messaging classmates wasn’t my fear of early-onset disease. It was a passion for what we were studying.
In many ways, I feel like my brain is waking up from an extended nap. For years, I used it well to care for and support my family, to strive in my career and to function as a grown-up in a complicated world. Now, curiosity compels me. To live is to learn. “Love follows understanding,” wrote St. Catherine of Siena in her “Dialogue.” So perhaps to grow in learning is to grow in love.
Lisa M. Hendey is the founder of CatholicMom.com, a bestselling author and an international speaker. Visit her at www.LisaHendey.com or on social media @lisahendey. “Senior Standing” appears monthly at OSV News.