This is part of a nine-part series following individuals as they embark on the big life decisions that change the way they see the world.
At 66 years old, Johanna Bergerman is of an age when most people would expect her to be slowing down. But she’s doing nothing of the sort. In fact, Bergerman’s hectic life got even busier last year, when she signed up for a master’s degree program in women’s studies at the University of Saskatchewan.
Even as she gets ready to retire from her job as a public health nutritionist and lactation expert, Bergerman is spending more than 20 hours a week going to classes, reading research material, and writing papers and proposals.
On tops of all this, she also puts in time at the Saskatoon Health Region and the Saskatoon Mother’s Centre — a ‘public living room’ she helped to create where women can develop skills and find opportunities to get involved in the community.
“I was influenced by a book called Second Wind [by Dr. Bill Thomas] which made the point that boomers have more time, energy and resources than past generations to do something positive in their retirement,” says Bergerman, who lives in Saskatoon with her husband. “This made me reconsider what my own life after work would look like.”
Unlike many Canadians her age who have not stepped into a classroom for decades, Bergerman has relatively recent experiences of student life. From the 1990s to 2008, she worked to earn an honours bachelor’s degree in women’s studies at the University of Saskatchewan, taking one class at a time.
“I would take night classes, or use work vacations to study,” she recalls. “I really worked to fit studying into my schedule, always trying to see how I could make it all work.”
But even with a degree in hand, Bergerman says she didn’t feel confident about going back to school.
“English was not my first language as a child,” she says. “I certainly had challenges in the education system and, to some extent, I felt a certain amount of discomfort in the classroom. Part of this whole exercise for me is challenging those fears.”
Her lack of confidence was not the only challenge. It was one thing to take one class each semester, quite another to add the full load of a master’s program to an already busy and demanding career.
Bergerman gets up at around 5 a.m. each day — including weekends — to do school work. But she’s quick to point out that she’s no poster girl for impeccable discipline.
“Like a lot of people, I struggle with procrastination,” she says. “But I’ve learned that the best way to deal with procrastination is to stop looking at the end product but rather focus on the process — break it down into bite-sized pieces.”
Bergerman notes that the way teachers teach and students learn is quite different today than when she started studying for her first degree. Pens and typewriters have given way to computers, and many blackboards are now electronic.
“The Internet has also made such a difference in how we learn,” she says. “It’s such a rich source of information, and it allows students to access research from home so you don’t have to go to the library.”
The University of Saskatchewan is among a group of Canadian colleges and universities that waive or discount tuition fees for senior-aged students. But Bergerman says she isn’t taking advantage of this benefit at USask because the school’s seniors program doesn’t grant degrees or certifications.
She sees her soon-to-be achieved master’s degree as critical to her post-retirement role at the Mother’s Centre, which has become part of international partnerships and discussions around the many challenges women face as they raise their children. The centre recently received community funding to run a breastfeeding peer support program — a resource in a city where many mothers are looking for support.
Bergerman says she’s grateful for her retired husband’s support in this late-life journey. Besides doing the grocery shopping and most of the housework, he also helps edit her schoolwork.
“We had a discussion before I went back to school and we asked: did I want to do this at this point in our lives, is this how I want to spend my time as opposed to spending time with my husband, our kids and four grandchildren?” says Bergman. “For me the answer was clear: I’m investing in my retirement by doing this master’s degree.”
This article originally appeared in the Globe & Mail in October 2016.
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