Illustrations by Mike Burdick
Transitioning to a new later-life career path is gaining popularity. In a Harvard Business Review report last year, a survey of people over 45 who attempted a career change found that 82 percent of career changes were successful, and 87 percent were happy or very happy they had made the change.
While it might seem intimidating, the transition is viewed as an opportunity to explore potentially fulfilling retirement-age roles that they may not have earlier in their careers.
Ruth Wooden experienced this firsthand. Following a successful career in communications, she found herself at a crucial juncture in her life. Faced with challenging life circumstances and a desire to rejuvenate her lapsed faith, she began to reassess her values and passions and decided to audit a theology class at nearby Union Theological Seminary in New York at the age of 65.
“It’s a story of serendipity,” recalls Wooden. “My first audited class answered my question about what to do at this time of my life.” One class led to another, and eventually she enrolled in Union’s master’s in religion program. She successfully completed the requirements and graduated in 2016.
“I wanted to go into the next chapter with as much – if not more – enthusiasm than the first,” Wooden explains.
This experience, combined with Wooden’s association as a board member for Encore Network (now CoGenerate), a coalition advocating for people 55+, formed the basis for a non-degree program she designed for senior adults at Union. The timing was right. “I remember sitting in a class thinking, ‘I’m not even the oldest student in the room.’”
Her vision for a non-degree curriculum is tailored to combine discussions on aging, spirituality, and hands-on experiences in the nonprofit, religious, and public sectors. Once drafted, she aptly named this initiative the Encore Transition Program.
Subsequently, Wooden approached Union’s president, the Rev. Serene Jones, Ph.D., with her idea for a non-degree, semester-long program specifically for senior adults that creates “a fundamental shift in a person’s life focus by engaging them deeply with social justice issues that have deeper meaning or personal resonance.”
“We are so proud to host this vibrant, diverse, and transformative program at Union Theological Seminary,” Jones said. “So many students in the program have a drive to pursue new career paths, find their callings, and make a difference in their communities. The results have been extraordinary. Participants have gone on to incredible endeavors that have created real, positive change in the world. We are so excited to see the pursuits of future participants.”
Now in its seventh year, Encore thrives on the strength of like-minded individuals, who collectively explore their personal, transformational journey and social justice issues, while cultivating a positive perspective on aging and the challenges that come with this life stage.
The seminar-style course is organized in cohorts, spanning a full semester during both Union’s fall and spring academic calendar year. It is conducted exclusively on a digital platform, with 2½-hour biweekly live sessions. Throughout the course, participants are assigned tasks that encourage them to actively immerse themselves in the intellectual aspects of the Encore experience, including research, dialogue, and exploration of specific interests. A prominent feature of the program is the provision of dedicated conversation partners for each participant, often selected from previous Encore cohorts.
The program also integrates a contemplative aspect through meditation practices. This approach aims to encourage deep reflections and discernment, enhancing the overall learning experience. Sessions begin and end with meditative instructions of music movement, walking, and silent meditations. Former cohort members with expertise in these practices are invited to lead sessions.
Along with Wooden, a group comprising Union faculty, Jones, Encore graduates, and industry-relevant professionals serve as instructors, providing guidance, shared experiences, and connections to each participant’s vocational discernment. Interaction among cohort members is essential through group discussions derived from diverse readings covering life transitions, spirituality, ageism, career choices, volunteering, and networking skills. These discussions foster a collaborative and supportive learning environment.
“I had finished one kind of ministry and started another teaching in a prison...Encore offered [me] an opportunity for deeper thinking about what might be possible. It was permission to consider alternatives.”
Cohorts are intentionally selected to unite people from diverse backgrounds, religious affiliations, and geographical locations.
“We usually have a lawyer or judge, business professional, and someone from the clergy,” notes Wooden. “We’ve had people in their 50s and others in their 80s from diverse backgrounds of occupation, race, religion, and location. But the ‘secret sauce’ to our success is the sense that they are ready to do something to fulfill a purpose-driven dream they have harbored inside for some time. They want to play a part in creating a better future and put their experience and wisdom to work.”
Encore leverages its location within the seminary setting, where participants become members of Union’s vibrant community. Alternately, students and program alumni can audit Union classes for $150 per class; many have taken the opportunity. The newest master’s degree at Union, the online M.A. in Social Justice, has attracted several Encore participants, while others have enrolled full time in the M.A. or M.Div. degree programs. This connection is helped along by members of the Union administration, who serve as facilitators and guest presenters.
The course is restricted to 12 participants, matched by their shared perspectives. Wooden hopes to offer the course as an on-campus program, acknowledging that a virtual platform enables national reach. She also is counseling other theological schools to help expand their Encore-type program. The program costs $2,500; financial assistance options are available.
Encore’s success was no surprise to the intrepid Wooden. “It is more than an external change moment; it is a moment of transformation internally. You never know what the future holds, but you do have the power to shape it.”