Ivy Leaf - Fall 2001

Bernice Levinson


Most college students come to school, get their degree, then look for a job. Bernice Levinson, an English major at Penn State Altoona, decided to take a slightly different approach: she began her college education the semester after she retired.

Following her tenure as the Executive Director of Improved Dwellings for Altoona (IDA) - a position she held from 1978 until her retirement in 1999- she figured there was no better time to seize the moment than now.

"The opportunity was there and I had the time! I'm not looking for another career," Bernice says. "I wanted to fulfill a lifelong desire for a bachelor's degree."

A native of Philadelphia, after high school she studied medical technology at Graduate Hospital and worked as a lab technician in Philadelphia and Altoona. In 1968, she became affiliated with IDA as a volunteer. Her volunteer role evolved into part-time employment, then full-time. She worked her way to the top position in the organization, overseeing the development and management of affordable housing for families, the elderly, and persons with disabilities in Blair, Cambria and Centre Counties.

Looking back on her accomplishments during her career, she is proud of her achievements, noting that she really got an independent self-education -but never got the document to go along with it.

"Friends scoffed that it was only a piece of paper, and that it was now my time to take it easy," Bernice says. "My life always seemed to have a focus; whether as a wife, mother, or working woman, there was always a reason to get up in the morning. But what was I to do now that I had joined the ranks of the retired?"

Her husband, Howard, wanted to keep working. He and their three married sons all supported her decision, so Bernice enrolled with nine credits during the Fall 1999 term. Since then, she's maintained a full-time course load each semester and never regrets her decision.

"I look at everything around me and my mind is just compelled to observe and absorb it all. I love it here - I love the excitement of learning and the intensity of it. There's no 'casual' reading for me anymore, now that it all has a purpose, and there's nothing like the satisfaction I feel when I write an essay or a poem and see what I'm able to accomplish."

This love of writing and language helped solidify her choice of English as a major and Spanish as a minor.

"My father was a printer and I learned the power and the beauty of the written and spoken word from him at an early age," she says. "For me, English was a natural choice."

The transition to life as a full-time student was a little awkward at first for Bernice, who notes that some of the younger students thought she was the professor when she walked into class the first day.

"Now the students have come to recognize me on campus and no longer see me as the evil spy sent by their parents to check up on them, or the nutty little old lady in tennis sneakers."

The transition to student status became easier after the first semester, and Bernice has made some new friends and has grown less self-conscious about her age.

"Although I felt a little awkward at first, I've come to realize that probably other students also feel isolated and unsure of themselves, regardless of their age, since we're all connecting with new people in a new environment."

In addition to maintaining a full course load and excellent grades, Bernice serves as a peer tutor and is also involved in a number of activities that enrich her life outside of the classroom, as well. She is a member of the board of the Blair County Civic Music Association, Altoona Community Theater, Central Pennsylvania Humane Society, and the Altoona Federation of Jewish Philanthropies.

"In many ways I feel fortunate to have postponed getting my degree until now," Bernice notes, adding that she feels she does have a slight edge with her life experiences. "This second chance at learning is a real blessing.

The academic atmosphere here is invigorating, where learning is happening all around me and where I can mingle with the faculty and other students and learn from them."

"I can be dragging my tail when I get up in the morning but when I get to school, I just come alive. I'm energized by all Penn State Altoona has to offer."