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Guest Commentary: Life lessons from a 66-year-old grad student

By Lee Ann Walling

Lee Ann Walling is a former Delaware State News editor and reporter and a former aide to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner. She lives in Lincoln.

At 66, I don’t have any major regrets.

The closest thing to an official major regret is never writing that novel percolating inside me. And now, I am about to at least write it, as a graduate student in the Master of Fine Arts program at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Even if I don’t wind up with a bestselling novel, it’s important, at my age, to keep those synapses firing. The Interact Well Care Memory Improvement Center states:

“Learning is like a mental bank account. The more synapses you have strengthened and developed by challenging your brain to keep learning, the more your neurons will be able to redirect their messages when a synapse fails.”

Graduate school, at my age, is probably noteworthy enough to write about, although I am only the third-oldest person in my class. No creative writing, not even a paragraph, had issued forth from my keyboard since circa 1976. And back then, it was a portable typewriter on Corrasable Bond paper, with a chaser of Liquid Paper on the side. That was at The University of Texas at Austin, where I received a Bachelor of Journalism degree.

Since then, I earned a Master of Business Administration from the University of Delaware in 1999, at age 43, and a certification in graphic and web design from the Delaware College of Art and Design in 2012, at age 56. Both these academic pursuits were spurred by a specific work or organizational need.

But this latest academic quest was born of the pandemic. As we came out of it, I wondered what I would do for the next 30 years (the Walling family has good genes). For two years, our world had been streaming TV and takeout and not much interaction with other humans, including family; we stopped going to church. I learned to play the bass guitar and eventually joined a praise band at a new church, where I play not bass but keyboard and synthesizer. But ennui had definitely set in, and I knew a couple of trips a year would not alleviate it.

So I contemplated what I could do into my 90s, even if everything else fell apart. And I landed on writing. For my application to Drexel in Philadelphia, I submitted a synopsis of a novel and two actual chapters totaling 33 pages — the most fiction I had ever written.

We are finishing up our first quarter at Drexel. The program opened with a residency in Philly, and the very diverse cohort is cohesive. In almost every group, there is a jerk or control freak or some sort of anti-social outlier (there were several in my MBA cohort). We have none of that. We enjoy reading each other’s work and encouraging each other to succeed.

The program is a healthy mix of working on craft versus the practical aspects of being published. But this isn’t really about one particular program or my particular quest. Besides building that “cognitive reserve” that we can tap into when one synapse goes haywire, it’s also important to keep exposing yourself to different people and different ways of looking at the world.

With too little human contact during the pandemic — and too much Facebook and 24-hour news — the geographic world shrank for me. Even Dover fell off the map. The world of wonder and imagination was shrinking, too, although I read a lot. I was turning into a curmudgeon, mad at all the people who put us in this position of isolation.

Sudoku puzzles and listening to classical music are not enough to keep an aging brain engaged. Learning something that is mentally challenging — digital photography, a musical instrument, a new language — will improve cognitive function, according to findings published in Psychological Science in October 2013.

“It seems it is not enough just to get out and do something — it is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging, and that provides broad stimulation mentally and socially,” said psychological scientist and lead researcher Denise Park of The University of Texas at Dallas. “When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone.”

The last time I visited my mother in Texas, she had taped a sticky note to the wall of her nursing home room. It said, “Delaware.” That was so she could remember where I lived, although by that visit, she did not know who I was.

The best advice I can offer is to venture out of your comfort zone. Choose your own way out. It will strengthen your brain, your human connections and the rest of your life.

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