It's never too late to get a (third) college degree

A 96-year-old MA candidate at London's School of Oriental and African Studies is crowned Britain's 'oldest learner.'

A former refugee from Nazi Germany is proving that it's never too late to learn by embarking at the age of 96 on his third university degree course.

Bernard Herzberg says that the turmoil of the early 20th century left him little time for study. But since retiring in 1990, he has made up for lost time. A degree in his native German was swiftly followed by an MA in refugee studies. And in September he enrolled for another MA, this time in African economics and literature.

"I was pensioned off when I was 80 and said to myself 'What are you going to do now?' " he explained in a telephone interview a day after being presented with the award of Britain's oldest learner. "I decided to study."

Herzberg's résumé reads like a condensed history of the 20th century. Born into a German Jewish family in 1909, he lived in Canada and New York before returning to Germany just as Hitler was rising to power. After listening to prescient warnings about the dangers of being Jewish in Europe, he left for South Africa. When his lifetime's work in the chemical industry came to an end, Herzberg was in London. He stayed.

Unlike his younger counterparts, who were studying to equip themselves for the future, Herzberg was gaining knowledge to help explain the past: German helped him to reconnect with the land of his birth; refugee studies shed light on his own life - "I myself went though that experience of being robbed of background and money and standing;" and African studies complemented the decades he spent on the continent.

Ed Melia of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, which sponsored the oldest-student award, says that Herzberg's story will inspire many other retirees to go back to school. Younger students also found Herzberg an inspiration, according to staff at the University of East London, where he got his first two degrees.

But spare a thought for the lecturer herself who had to teach someone who was older than her own grandfather. At times, Anita Fabos says, the class would be enthralled by its oldest member, who would hold forth on the vicissitudes that contorted lives in the world's most brutal century. One could be forgiven for wondering who was teaching whom.

"I'm just a third of his age," says Dr. Fabos, who accepted Herzberg for the refugee studies program. "He was an amazing presence in the class. We could explore 70 years of history with a person who has had this experience. I had this feeling of deference to this venerable person, which was hard at times. I had to balance between letting him carry on with amazing things he was saying [and] getting the class back on track."

Of course, it's not always easy for Herzberg either. Though he has no problem remembering facts and ideas, some technology still baffles him. But his younger counterparts help him with computing, e-mails, and presentations.

"It's not hard to take a shine to Bernard," says Fabos.

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