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65 and thriving

Senior citizen, senior English major earns degree

For many, reaching the age of 65 means slowing down and enjoying retirement. Aliza Burton, an English major at the University of South Carolina, has chosen a less traditional path. Upon learning about On Your Time Initiatives’ senior waiver program, she set out to fulfill a promise she made to herself when she left her undergraduate degree incomplete as a teenager.

She would go back and get a diploma.

I want to pack in all I can, and my experiences at USC have been really a great way to do that.

Aliza Burton

Burton’s can-do attitude and optimism have buoyed her through the challenges of completing a degree, but she also credits the university atmosphere. “You walk on the Horseshoe and it just energizes you,” says Burton. “You feel the energy at school and on campus. It’s so invigorating to me.”

Burton is no stranger to the classroom, having come to USC with a strong background in education. For 20 years, she taught at a religious school for Jewish children in New York, where regular interaction with students kept her feeling youthful. She brought that passion to USC and is thriving in her discipline. Part of her excitement and level of engagement comes from the perspective that life experience has given her.

“I remember when I was a freshman, I had no idea why what I was learning was important. But now, even the core classes, I can see why they’re important,” says Burton, who has taken courses in statistics, Shakespeare and a range of other subjects through the College of Arts and Sciences. “I wouldn’t have understood why they mattered back then, but I appreciate it now. It’s fun!”

Being older than her classmates — and even her professors — has given Burton the opportunity to contextualize her learning and connect it to historical moments she has lived through, such as 9/11 and the later years of the Civil Rights Movement. Her experience allows her to share her insights with and learn from younger students.

Burton’s professors can attest to the joy and eagerness for learning that she brings to the classroom. In fall of 2022, Burton took a class on the intersections between parallel mystical sects of Judaism and Islam, called Kabbalah and Lettrism, respectively. As a former religious school instructor and the niece of a prominent rabbi of Kabbalah, Aryeh Kaplan, she was thrilled to explore diverse religious themes.

Kabbalah board game created by Aliza Burton

Her culminating project for the course was a board game visually representing a map of divine energies sometimes known as a kabbalistic tree. Burton’s game also incorporated the concept of numerical values for Hebrew letters, the history of key players in mystic thought, and an introduction to basic Hebrew vocabulary.

“Aliza is just a fantastic student,” says Andrew Berns, an associate professor of history who co-taught the interdisciplinary course with associate professor of history Matthew Melvin-Koushki. “She’s able to articulate complicated ideas with great precision. She is an extraordinary woman with a lot of skills and a lot of talents, and she could do any number of things.”

And Burton is enthusiastic about continuing to do new things after commencement. Spurred by Berns’ and Melvin-Koushki’s class, she has expressed an interest in further developing the concept of her Kabbalah game or pursuing research on gamification of learning, but she is keeping her options open.

“I only have so many years left,” she says. “Graduation is not my deadline. At my age, my deadline is literal. I want to pack in all I can, and my experiences at USC, both inside the classroom and out, have been really a great way to do that.”