This university in Lebanon is bringing older people back to class
Suma Rifai is a woman with lots of responsibility.
She has raised two children on her own, and now helps care for her aging parents and her dogs.
But she has always had ambitions to learn.
"To be honest with you, the thing is, I've always wanted to go for a higher education," she said.
Now, at age 55, Rifai is realizing her ambitions. She's a student at the University for Seniors in Beirut, Lebanon, an institution dedicated to helping older people get the most out of their later years.
Currently, Lebanon has the fastest growing proportion of senior citizens compared to any other country in the Arab world. As of 2021, 11% of its population was over the age of 65, according to Lebanon's Ministry of Social Affairs. By 2050, that number is set to increase to 23%, making it a super-aged population by UN standards.
"We have a very high emigration rate in Lebanon. Lebanese youth leaving the country and older Lebanese adults returning to their home country to retire in Lebanon," said Maya Abi Chahine, UfS's program manager.
"[Seniors] find themselves kind of alone. And the city and the country doesn't really offer engaging opportunities."
The University for Seniors is for students age 50 and up and, although UfS does not award degrees, the program offers a variety of lectures and courses, covering topics ranging from Neuroscience to Arabic Literature to cryptocurrency.
Normally, UfS classes were held in person at the American University of Beirut campus, where students rubbed shoulders with college-age colleagues. However, since the start of the pandemic, the mingling has moved online.
While the transition to online learning was difficult, Rifai says UfS has provided an escape to life under lockdown.
"It was like, a savior for a lot of people," Rifai said. "You were imprisoned, and you just had the chance to fly away."
Online learning has also opened the door for many new students to enroll in the program for the first time. 77-year-old Jaques Ekmekji was never able to join UfS when it was in person.
"I was almost home struck by for operations on my back," Ekmekji said. "[When] everything turned into zoom, then that was a great opportunity for me."
Since enrolling in UfS, Ekmekji says the program has given him the chance to explore new curiosities.
"It gives you a real space for growth in certain areas that you never thought of."
Meanwhile, Suma Rifai, can't wait to talk in person back on the American University campus.
"I believe it's a must for the new generation to see us on campus. For them, they have to see that the hope is there.
The hope, says Rifai, that no matter how old you are, you can always be a student.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.