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WEST CHESTER — They say people are never too old to go to college and for West Chester University, people aren’t too young either.
For the sixth year, the university is hosting Grandparents University (GPU) June 22 to 24 where grandparents and their grandchildren experience the college life while they live together in a dorm room and attend classes together before a graduation ceremony held at the very end.
“The president of the university put up an online idea box for campus community members to pitch any ideas they wanted,” said Mary Braz, a professor at WCU and the founder of its GPU. “I submitted mine and someone liked it and they helped me implement it.”
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The idea wasn’t new to her, however, as she saw a Grandparents University at Michigan State University while she was studying for her Ph.D.
Braz got in contact with the coordinator at Michigan State for some tips and ideas and in the summer of 2009, WCU became the only college in the eastern United States to have the program.
“I wanted to create a space for family members to learn together in a fun, interactive environment,” Braz said. “I think that oftentimes, children who are old enough to want to be really curious and learn about their grandparents miss the time for some of those conversations.”
To help facilitate those conversations sooner, Braz creates courses to allow that to happen and to create everlasting memories along the way.
“I structured the courses and the program to have a lot of interaction,” she said. “It can be the video tape of them anchoring the news desk together in the newscast class or the rocket they built in the physics program. I want them to have the chance to create memories now and have items they can look back on later that they made, developed or designed with their grandparents.”
However, not many people are aware of GPU. In order to help keep costs down, Braz doesn’t spend any money on advertising and just hopes word of mouth will get others interested.
Raymond Drago, who has six grandchildren, never knew about the program.
“My daughter is the one who found out,” he said. “I don’t know how she found it. She asked me if I would go several years ago and I thought this would be a cool idea. So I went and we just had an absolute blast. It’s just absolutely incredible.”
That was three years ago and he’s still excited to attend every year, including this summer, especially since he is now also one of the instructors.
“When I was speaking with Braz, I mentioned to her that I teach classes for younger kids,” Drago said. “I’ve already been teaching classes on wind power and engineering to little kids. I mentioned it to Mary and she asked if I would be willing to do it here.”
Drago will be teaching two classes this year: Flight Class and Wind Power.
Those are just two of eight courses being offered at this summer’s GPU, with the other courses being taught by professors at WCU, giving the grandparents and grandchildren as close to a college feel as possible.
“I believe in the power of an education,” Braz said. “I set up the program to mirror enrollment as an undergraduate student. I put together a course catalog and the child and their grandparent go over the courses and pick the ones they’re going to enroll in. I’m hoping by going through the enrollment process and by sleeping in dorms, when it comes time to think about going to college, it’s not some mysterious place that exists out there for other people. They have firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be on a college campus and be a college student.”
The grandparents and grand kids stay in dorm rooms together for three days and have three meals a day supplied at the resident’s hall cafeteria. They are even issued IDs to get into the buildings.
“You get to spend three entire days just you and the grandchild without mom and dad or any other interruptions,” Drago said. “There’s just nothing like it.”
In fact, one of the first “age out” kids — grandchildren eligible to attend have to be between 6 to 14 years old) from GPU — is now an undergraduate at the university.
The program is attended by families far and wide, including people from Connecticut, Florida and California.
Best of all, the families all connect with each other and form lasting friendships.
“I watch them make friends with each other,” Braz said. “They’ll exchange e-mail addresses or phone numbers. The grandparents will also make friends. There is a group of them that hang out during the year now. It has become a family.”
GPU isn’t just for grandparents, however. For children who may not have a grandparent or one that doesn’t live close enough to go, they can have a substitute instead, whether it be an aunt, uncle or even a neighbor.
“For several years, a woman brought two children to GPU who were from a family in which no one had ever attended college,” Braz said. “The woman and her husband knew the family from the community. She wanted to show the girls what college was like so they could start envisioning themselves here one day. Any family, whoever they are, is welcome at GPU.”
When all is said and done and both grandparents and grandchildren graduate at the end of the program, there are nothing but smiles all around.
“There isn’t a single person there at the end of the three days who is sorry that they went,” Drago said. “Everyone of them thinks it’s the greatest thing in the world. It builds a lot of camaraderie with the grandchild. It’s amazing how close the grandchildren get.”
Registration is still open for GPU 2015. Please visit http://wcupa.edu/conference.services/forms/gpu/ to register. For any questions, contact Mary Braz at firstname.lastname@example.org.