July 25, 2011
Second helping: Gerontology secondary major popular because of usefulness in many professions
Gerontology may be a secondary major at Kansas State University, but a growing number of students are citing it as a primary reason for success.
Enrollment in K-State's gerontology program has more than tripled in the last five years and shows no sign of slowing down. In 2006 total gerontology enrollment -- including the secondary major along with the department's emphasis in long-term care administration -- was 49 students. In the 2011 spring semester of 2011, enrollment was 170.
Although the secondary major represents an additional 24-credit hour commitment from K-State students, there are multiple reasons why the program has seen a recent burst of popularity, said Gayle Doll, assistant professor and director of the K-State Center on Aging.
"Gerontology matches well with every major on campus," Doll said. "Once students get into their field, they're going to be working with older adults, and having this secondary major prepares the students to interact with these older adults."
Pick a major, and Doll can name a reason why gerontology would be a welcome addition to a student's chosen career field. Students going into financial advising could benefit from adding the second major, for example, so they could relate more easily to older clients who are dealing with retirement issues. Health-related fields, like rehabilitation, could also benefit from an employee with gerontological experience.
Doll said she and others at the Center on Aging hear anecdotal stories from past students who nailed a job interview partially because of their secondary major of choice.
"These students often get a second look. I've heard students say when they interviewed for medical school, they get asked about their gerontology major," she said. "When they sign up for a secondary major, they prove they are committed and work harder than the average student. It also recognizes the fact that they are looking to compliment their success in the career field with knowledge of how to understand older adults."
The secondary major also helps fight against ageism, or age discrimination. Doll said gerontology teaches students that older adults aren't that different from them.
"They're not to be feared, but to be made friends of," she said.
Gerontology students gain this knowledge, along with possible career experience, through the major's mentor program. Doll said each student in the program has a mentor from the Meadowlark Hills Retirement Community in Manhattan, many of whom were associated with K-State, including three former deans, six former professors and many alumni. A one-semester capstone course held at Meadowlark Hills allows multiple meetings with the mentors.
"The mentors are brilliant," Doll said. "They help the students by changing their lives in terms of how they view aging. The mentors and students create friendships and learn from each other. There is nothing like a person in their 80s -- it's not relevant to students until they have a relationship like this with an older person."
Doll said that the mentors are often an excellent networking source after the student graduates. One student even received her diploma from the mentor she had been working with.
As the Center on Aging's director, Doll's enthusiasm for gerontology may be understandable, but students are often willing to back up the advertised success themselves. Students in the program have purchased T-shirts proclaiming the gerontology secondary major as their "secondary major but my first love," and student ambassadors work hard to get the word out.
These ambassadors work with clubs across campus to set up activities. They also set up an annual field trip, including last year's trip for students to meet with the Kansas secretary on aging in Topeka and to sit in on a case study class at the University of Kansas School of Medicine.
"The students asked their own questions during the class, and I was proud of that," Doll said. "We work hard to get students interested and to give them opportunities to see what is available."
Students often do not hear about the gerontology program until the middle of their college career, usually leaving only their junior and senior year to get through the secondary major. However, Doll said once they find the program, they're hooked. The program boasts high retention and graduation rates -- out of the 170 students in the program, 60 completed it and graduated within the 2010-2011 academic year. Introduction to Gerontology classes are also offered in six sections a year, which any student can take.
"Every time a Gerontological Society of America newsletter comes out, I find out about another program that's died -- it's hard to stay afloat," said Doll. "Here at K-State, we're able to demonstrate that, demographically, there are major changes happening in the U.S., and baby boomers are creating a huge need for services for older adults. Getting students to see that is a key element."