Spotlight on Academics: Scripps Students Tell Senior Life Stories in Real Life Learning Lab

Scripps College students Emma Dubery, Valerie Daifotis, Perrin York (l to r) enjoy their connection with 92-year-old Mt. San Antonio Gardens resident Mae Augarten at the completion of a class project where they produced and presented the elderly Claremont, Calif. neighbor’s life story.
Photo courtesy of Mt. San Antonio Gardens

Scripps College students in Dr. Stacey Wood’s psychology class stepped out of the classroom and stepped back in time recently as they worked with a group of four seniors who live at nearby Mt. San Antonio Gardens to tell the elderly residents’ life stories.

While the resulting classroom-style presentations served as a valuable, mutual learning experience, the real life bond forged between the students and residents created an indelible, intergenerational connection.

“My experience with Mae Augarten was exhilarating: she was such a firecracker,” said Scripps sophomore Perrin York of the spunky nonagenarian she interviewed. “I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy and appreciate hearing her perspective on the world before we had met. I’ll never forget when she told us that ‘love is just paying attention.'”

Sophomore Emma Dubery had a similar experience with the 92-year old.

“For me, getting to work with Mae was an experience I’ll never forget. As a college student, I don’t often interact with adults in the later stages of their life, and to be frank I really didn’t know what to expect when I got this assignment. The first day we met Mae, she told us she had ‘two children and one republican,’ and in that moment I knew she was going to be an absolute character,” Dubery laughed.

The Life Story: life narrative project connected residents with the young students over the course of four one-hour-plus meetings. Gardens residents shared stories of family, career, even a little advice, with the student group.

“One of my favorite things Mae said to us, when we asked her why she went back to school, she replied simply: ‘it’s like Everest, it was there,'” Dubery said. The Scripps art history major went on to explain that the remarkable stereotype-busting senior citizen didn’t attend college in her youth because she felt she wasn’t intelligent enough, but had enrolled at Scripps in her early sixties and eventually got a degree from Pitzer. “She disproves a lot of negative stereotypes about late life,” Dubery added.

Sophomore Valerie Daifotis, who also interviewed and spent time with Augarten, said their talks made her introspective about her own life. “After hearing about the relationships she had with her parents, her divorce from her husband, and her ultimate decision to graduate from college, I am more aware of the decisions I’ve made in my life. I always left our interviews with Mae feeling hopeful for the future and everything it has in store for me,” Daifotis said.

According to Scripps psychology professor Stacey Wood, the class explores adult development, as interviews draw out each resident’s life experiences. “It’s a learning opportunity for the students, of course, but we hope the sessions benefit the residents, too, by helping them synthesize the themes of their life to create a meaningful narrative,” she said. Working with older adults in this way made the class material come alive, Wood explained. “We talk about the losses and gains that happen as we age, and these participants have survived any losses—spouses, disability—but thrive and give back to the community.”

“The final presentations were so compelling,” Andrea Tyck, who serves as wellness director for the senior residence community, said. “It was remarkable what the students learned just by having conversations with the resident.”

Tyck said Gardens resident John Maguire reportedly was “bowled over” by the video the students produced about his life. Resident Sharon Dannel’s group also created a video, using photographs she had shared with them during their visits.

Several students said they felt the experience has encouraged them to face the challenges of aging without fear. “It isn’t every day you meet someone like Mae, and I was honored to work with her. She has given me a completely different perspective on the aging process,” said Dubery.