Old never looked this young: AU’s senior citizens here to stay

Left to right: Lorinda Colbert, Barb Card, Sheldonia Bessent and Lewis Smith stand at the AU Bell in front of Allgood Hall on the Summerville campus. (photo by Ansley Simmons)

By Ansley Simmons |

As a young, dark-skinned teenager in New York, Theodosia Williams had to quit high school. She knows what it’s like to be spit on. She knows how it feels to be broken down by rude little boys. Unfortunately, the sexual harassment was ignored by faculty, so she couldn’t fight back.

She was denied jobs because of her shade of brown. As of 2018, Williams is a veteran who can finally attend school without the hardships she faced when she was younger.

Williams, 75, was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Maryland, New York and Washington D.C.

“I was raised on the road,” she said.

After dropping out of high school, she found love, became a housewife and had four children.  By age 31, she got her GED and obtained her nursing license. She has four children of her own and was in the military for 27 years with her retired rank being E7. She was stationed in field hospitals.

Williams took her last physical training test at 59.

“I thought I was going to die, “ Williams said with a laugh.

She has always had an interest in art and history, so she is taking an art history class. She is one of 20 enrolled senior citizens who are in the auditing program at Augusta University.

Thanks to a Georgia constitutional law passed in 1976, the University System of Georgia allows people over the age of 62 to audit classes depending on availability free of charge. Those wanting to pursue a degree will have to enroll in a different program and pay tuition. The only fees audit students pay are for supplies, books and the application.

Despite the challenges they face, these audit students stay busy. Some take two classes per semester while some take up to four. According to Beunka Stephens, head of the audit department, professors are not required to give audit students a grade since most of the classes they take are not for credit.

“Some of these people have master’s degrees and graduate degrees from the medical college, yet some still like to see grade results,” Stephens said.

Williams’s neighbor, Lorinda Colbert, is a soft-spoken yet adventurous woman who has an interest in art and also takes advantage of the free auditing program. With her still posture and circular glasses, Colbert, 67, spoke proudly of her roots. She was born and raised in Augusta. She went to Fort Valley State College in 1969 with the idea of majoring in art, but the program fell through. All of the students in the art program had to change their majors, so Colbert became an education major.

She taught middle school and high school for 33 years, but now she is retired and can focus on her passion for art. She has seven siblings, one of those being Sheldonia Colbert Bessent, 70, who is also an audit student.

Bessent has that same upheld posture as her sister and a pleasant smile. She graduated from Fort Valley State with a degree in business education. When computers first came out, Bessent got a certification in computer technology at Lincoln College in Jacksonville, Fla.  She currently lives on a farm with her husband who is a cattle farmer. She has a passion for writing and art.

Colbert and Bessent claimed they came back to school, despite their many college degrees and certifications, because it is so accessible. Bessent also came back to find her voice and writing style to become a better author. Williams, on the other hand, started out under the G.I. Bill before knowing about the audit program.

“I came here for the education. This isn’t about anything free for me,” Williams said.

Experiencing a car crash scraping by with several injuries in April 2016, Barb Card was a published author, former high school English teacher and a grandmother. She was hospitalized and treated for pain with morphine, pain patches and oxycodone. Her body developed a dependency for these medications, and she had to go through rehab. The pain and medication had her to where she couldn’t put two sentences together. She often uses a walker to get around.

Card came to Augusta University so she could put her sentences together and truly challenge herself cognitively after the car crash. “It worked,” she stated. She enrolled in writing and history classes and currently works at the writing center on campus. Her learning experience on campus impacted her recovery.

The value of education is unique to the individual. Education excites Card.

“It is growth, opening of horizons, new experiences and keeping my brain from stagnating,” she said.

Williams’s views education as taking back what she was denied in high school. She believes education encourages ones’ surroundings such as friends and family.

“When you achieve, they achieve,” she said.

Bessent believes education is a way out; it is a way to broaden your perspective.

“You can’t without knowledge,” she said.

Some of the challenges they seem to face are: remembering what day classes are, certain technological skills, mobility between classes and remembering information from lectures.

Card shares a class with Bessent. They encourage each other to be on time jokingly, for it might take a minute to get from one place to the next. Bessent once found herself in an empty classroom. She had her days mixed up.

Lewis Smith returned from the U.S. Navy after four years deployed in the Vietnam War and went to AU in 1972 to major in accounting. Tall, tan and charming, he hit the ground running. He got a job at the pool hall where students played pool and hung out. He enjoyed the greased pig races where the winner who caught the scrambling pig would win a prize.

Many years later, Smith, 71, returned to AU in a different time where no pigs run free. He is still that charming young man with a sincere nature. His strides are long, and students often mistake him for a professor due to his confident demeanor.

Lewis Smith (left) at AU in 1965. (photo by Ansley Simmons)

Smith is a retired certified public accountant, runs the McDuffie Museum in Thomson and is an author. He is the curator, director and the treasurer of this museum. He came back to AU for his love of writing; however, he wishes he would’ve started writing seriously when he was an undergraduate. He has already written two books, one of them being about his family.

“Don’t waste money if you are not serious,” Smith said. “Try to earn your money’s worth.”

The wisdom these auditing students have does not go unnoticed. They tend to develop relationships with students and sometimes have to remind them that they are in class to learn just like every other student.

“At the end of each semester, I take a picture with students and post it on my Facebook page,” Colbert said.

Williams, Colbert, Card and Smith all intend on taking more classes. Bessent has been auditing for four years and feels as if she has gained the skills she needed as a writer. Fall 2018 was her last semester.

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