Back to school for Hawaii's senior citizens

Leona Pereza
Leona Pereza

By Lisa Kubota - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Going back to school can be scary after spending decades in the workforce, but some senior citizens are skipping retirement and returning to classes to compete in Hawaii's tough job market.

Leona Pereza worked as a pediatric nurse in a private practice for 34 years. In 2003, at the age of 57, she found herself out of a job when the doctor retired.

"I know the daunting feeling of being in that situation at that age and saying, 'Now, what do I do?' It's frightening," said the Enchanted Lake resident.

After a lot of soul-searching, she decided to go back to school to become a social worker. Her husband, Arnold, wasn't working anymore because of a heart condition. Paying for tuition stretched the family's finances. Pereza said at first, she was intimidated by the younger students, but the long hours of studying paid off. After five years, she earned a bachelor's and a master's degree. Now she loves her job as an admissions coordinator and social worker at Shriner's Hospital for Children.

"I have done everything I could possibly do to gain new work skills to be marketable, to be able to be here and compete and stay employed, but there's so many uncertainties," said Pereza.

There are other seniors like Pereza in classrooms across the state. Enrollment at the seven community colleges in the University of Hawaii system is up. The number of students age 50 and older rose from 906 in 2006 to 1,228 last year.

Those who can't afford costly classes can take advantage of a program dedicated to lifelong learning at UH Manoa.

"It's the best kept secret on this island," said Patricia Masters, director of the Senior Citizen Visitor Program.

The Senior Citizen Visitor Program allows Hawaii residents age 60 and older to take classes for free. On average, about 450 seniors are enrolled each semester.

"I've taken language, Mandarin specifically, and I took an ethics class," said participant Leslie Chee.

No credit is awarded and permanent records aren't kept, but seniors can still learn skills that are valuable in the workforce.

"I was working on various projects that require use of computers and the access to audio visual material," said participant Edward Arrigoni.

"Some of them are taking courses in English actually to improve their writing skills so they can do something again. They can write resumes," Masters said.

The program doesn't receive any funding. Seniors must sign up in Room 413 at the Student Equity, Excellence and Diversity office in the Queen Liliuokalani Center for Student Services. Call 956-9317 for more information or send an email to

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