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Last month, Napa Valley College awarded nearly 1,500 degrees and certificates to more than 700 students at our annual commencement ceremony. The youngest graduate was 18 years old and the oldest was 67.

This fall, we’ll be welcoming a new group of students. Some will be from the graduating classes of our local high schools, and we will be very pleased to see them continue their education at the college. But we hope they will be joined by others who come from another segment of the community, Napa’s senior population.

Older students are rarely discussed in the same terms as younger ones. Instead of “setting off on a journey to seek a better life” or “obtaining education or training for a better job or career,” they are sometimes characterized as less intellectually active, less engaged, set in their ways and unable to adapt.

But as our students show, that is far from the truth.

Community colleges offer the opportunity for seniors to gain skills or knowledge, earn credits for a degree or just learn something new.

As the college president, I see up close and personal the many proven benefits to going back to school as an older person. According to the Association for Psychological Science, aging adults who get out of their comfort zone, engage in difficult tasks and learn new skills increase cognitive vitality. It’s quite simple: learning new skills keeps an aging mind sharp. And the American ideal is alive and well, thank you. Self-determination, independence and self-worth still reside in the hearts of our citizens and residents. Maintain these characteristics and the spirit stays young, even in an aging body.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, our state’s senior population is entering a period of rapid growth. By 2030, as the last of the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age, the state’s over-65 population will grow by four million people; nationwide, one in five Americans will be in this age group. And the very elderly — centenarians —are one of the fastest-growing groups.

Much attention is paid to addressing some of the problems associated issues of aging — like medical research and treatments, new laws and protections from elder abuse and training for adult children and caregivers of seniors. However, there is less focus on ways individuals can slow down their own aging process and extend their vitality well into their later years, even though there are proven methods of doing so.

The key is to maintain self-determination, independence and self-worth well into your later years. And Napa Valley College can help.

If you are among this population, consider what attending classes at Napa Valley College can do for you. Did you graduate from a college, just take a few classes or never have the opportunity? Now is your chance to advance your education. Are there skills and experiences you wish you had acquired when you were younger? Have you ever dreamt about learning to play the piano or speak another language? Would you like to try your hand at building and flying drones, creating art, taking better photographs, painting or making ceramics? What about singing, acting, dancing, writing a best seller, dissecting a cat, traveling to Spain, opening a new small business, preparing fine cuisine, making wine or getting your body back into the best shape of your life?

It’s never too late to try something new. You can achieve any and all of these by surrounding yourself with engaging people who are seeking the same things.

This fall, we’re offering up terrific classes for older students to consider. And beyond that, I am encouraging Napa Valley senior citizens to enroll in the college to earn a certificate or associate’s degree. The proven benefits of education, aside from the knowledge, skills and training you will receive, include relevant, meaningful engagement that can increase those qualities of self-determination, independence and self-worth that keep us all young in spirit.

Napa Valley College is committed to making lifelong learning accessible to everyone in our community, including our older population.

Napa Valley College recently hosted the fourth annual Elder Abuse Awareness Symposium presented by Napa County Alliance for Senior Education (NCASE) and NVC, in honor of Elder Abuse Awareness Month. The symposium was held to raise awareness about some of the darker sides of aging — those older adults who experience elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation.

We hope few in our community suffer from those societal ills. We all need to be aware of the problem and help prevent it. At Napa Valley College, we are committed to doing our part to support our senior citizens by providing a means of staying connected, intellectually active and independent for years to come.

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Dr. Ronald Kraft is the superintendent/president of Napa Valley College. Visit napavalley.edu to learn more. You can listen to the Elder Abuse Awareness Symposium here: http://napabroadcasting.com/napa-valley-college-elder-abuse-awareness-symposium/

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