CMU's oldest student: Marilyn Zorn has taken almost 100 credits for free

Adam Niemi/Staff Photographer Mount Pleasant residents Karen Clark, left, and Marilyn Zorn, right, listen to a lecture in [REL 320: Buddhism Tradition] Feb. 27 in Anspach Room 168. Zorn, 84, is the oldest student at CMU.

For more than 20 years, Marilyn Zorn taught English literature and composition at Central Michigan University. Now she’s back in the classroom — this time, as a student.

At 84, Zorn is currently the oldest student enrolled at CMU.

She has been taking religion and history classes ever since 1996, about 29 in total, all for free. Zorn is one of 20 students currently enrolled in CMU’s senior citizen audit program, said Registrar Karen Hutslar. The program allows students 60 and older to take classes free of tuition, earning no credit and no grades.

“It allows people to pursue something that they maybe didn’t have time for in earlier life,” Zorn said. “It’s a good way to keep your mind active and to interact with younger people.”

Zorn began taking classes shortly after the death of her husband, who also was an English professor at CMU. She has a master’s degree from the University of Michigan and has lived in Mount Pleasant since 1959. She has three children and five grandchildren.

Karen Clark, 70, is currently enrolled in her second class at CMU, REL 320: The Buddhist Tradition, with Zorn.

Both of Clark’s children graduated from CMU, but she does not have a college degree. She was thrilled to discover the audit program.

“I never thought I’d be taking classes here in a million years,” Clark said. “It seems like just yesterday my kids were moving into the Towers.”

Clark, also a widow and a retired medical bookkeeper, moved to town six years ago from Royal Oak to be closer to her children.

All classes are open for seniors in the program, as long as there are empty seats after regular students register.

"It's stimulating, intriguing and we get to take any class we want," Clark said.

Both women choose to take a more observant role in the class, since they do not pay tuition.

“I do participate, but not overly,” Zorn said. “It’s the students’ class, really, and we’re kind of spectators.”

The women agreed the younger students have been welcoming to them.

“The students at (CMU) tend to be a friendly group, with an informality about learning,” Zorn said.

“They’re very respectful of us, too,” Clark added.

They agreed they were impressed by the younger students they have met, especially within the department of philosophy and religion.

“I thought they’d have disinterest, but they are gung-ho in class and ask great questions,” Clark said. “It makes me proud.”

Zorn has taken most of the religion classes offered at CMU, since she has always been interested in it.

“These classes open the world to you in a very real sense,” she said. “It’s like being an armchair traveler.”

They agreed it is important to learn about a culture to become less judgmental.

Zorn said she “has very fond memories” of all of her past professors.

“They don’t treat us any different,” Clark said. “They know Marilyn by name.”

Religion professor Guy Newland, who teaches the class both women are in now, said most professors enjoy having non-traditional students in class, including himself.

“Traditional-age students sometimes do and sometimes don’t know what they are doing, that is, why they are sitting in this particular desk at this particular time,” Newland said in an email. "But older students always know why they are there in class, so they are always motivated. They bring a store of life experience and perspective that allows them to ask different sorts of questions.”

Both women noticed how much most students utilize technology in learning today.

“You almost need to have a computer to keep up with classes,” Clark said.

Although the grades do not count, Zorn said she enjoys taking tests to keep her memory sharp.

To give back to the community, both women volunteer at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 320 S. Bradley St.

“If you’re lucky enough to have your health, we have all this freedom to open any door you want (with classes),” Clark said. “I think volunteering offsets that because you need to give back, too.”

Similar programs This is the 20th year CMU has offered senior citizen discounts, Hutslar said, but it is not the only Michigan university to do so.

The University of Michigan offers half off tuition for seniors. Michigan State University offers evening courses for seniors for a discount of about $45 each. Eastern Michigan University allows half off tuition for seniors not seeking credit. Oakland University offers free tuition for seniors not seeking credit, and half off to seniors who are seeking credit. Saginaw Valley State University issues listener’s permits for any community member for $85 no matter their age.

Grand Valley State University does not offer a discount.

At CMU, there is no discount for seniors seeking credit.

Zorn said she worries the program may be cut someday.

“We don’t really add any value to the university,” she said.

But Hutslar said there has been no discussion of cutting it.

“I plan to keep taking classes until I am in assisted living,” Zorn said with a smile.


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