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This Lebanese university gives senior citizens a chance to go back to school

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the Arab world, Lebanon has the fastest-growing proportion of senior citizens compared to any other country. And one Lebanese institution wants to make sure people get the most out of their later years, people like Suma Rifai.

SUMA RIFAI: I have two kids. You can say that I'm a certified mom.

KELLY: Two kids she's raised on her own. She also takes care of her aging parents and two dogs.

RIFAI: To be honest with you, the thing is that I've always wanted to go for a higher education.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When Rifai was in her late 40's, she applied to a university for older people called the University for Seniors in Beirut. That's where she lives.

RIFAI: And I was shocked because they refused my application. They said, you're too young to join us.

SUMMERS: So she waited a few years and joined at the age of 53.

RIFAI: (Speaking Arabic).

SUMMERS: That's Rifai speaking Arabic in one of her classes.

RIFAI: I was always saying, OK, learning now at this age - I cannot do this. But it turned out, it gave me hope. It's really given me the push.

KELLY: The University for Seniors is for students ages 50 and up, and I am going to bite my tongue and try not to take issue with the characterization of 50 years old as senior. Maya Abi Chahine, who manages the program, says the vision is to portray a positive image of aging.

MAYA ABI CHAHINE: One where older adults remain active and engaged as they age, active mentally, physically and socially.

SUMMERS: Prior to the pandemic, classes were held at the American University in Beirut. On campus, seniors rubbed shoulders with college-age students. Now that mingling happens online during lectures.

JAQUES EKMEKJI: You have music and art. You have travel and talks about countries.

SUMMERS: That's Jaques Ekmekji, who's 77 years old and a student. He says it's fun.

EKMEKJI: Sometimes, you know, you have parties. Every other week we have, you know, a Zoom party.

KELLY: Oh, a good old college Zoom party. Well, Ekmekji was a civil engineer for 50 years. Now he's logging into lectures on topics like meditation and food.

EKMEKJI: It gives you a real space for growth in certain areas that you never thought of.

SUMMERS: It's also been space for growth of his social life, especially since he's been laid up at home after back surgeries.

EKMEKJI: Sometimes you'll find people that you haven't seen them for ages, and you interact with them. You talk with them afterward.

SUMMERS: Meanwhile, Suma Rifai can't wait to talk in person back on the American University campus.

RIFAI: I believe it's a must for the new generation to see us on campus. For them, they have to see that the hope is there.

KELLY: The hope, says Rifai, is that no matter how old you are, you can always be a student.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAHALA RAI BANDA'S "BALKAN REGGAE (JSTAR MIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.