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Education

‘A lifetime of learning’: 72-year-old Peter Engel graduates from UMBC with third degree, prepares for fourth

When Peter “Pete” Engel retired two years ago, he wanted anything but to become a couch potato. Thursday, on the day of his 49th wedding anniversary, he showed his family how he kept that promise, walking across the stage at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and receiving a bachelor’s degree in history.

“It’s a special day,” Engel said to his grandson, Isaac Engel, 9, as the pair stood outside UMBC’s Chesapeake Employers Insurance Arena, named for Pete’s former employer, before the commencement ceremony.

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Pete Engel, 72, left, gets a hug from his 9-year-old grandson Ethan Engel, right, before the UMBC commencement ceremony.

“Yes, it is!” Isaac replied.

To celebrate Engel’s achievement, his entire family, his wife, three kids and three grandchildren, attended the UMBC graduation ceremony.

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The 72-year-old, no stranger to higher education, began his postsecondary studies back in the late 1960s, earning a degree in political science from the University of Maryland, College Park before going to UMD’s law school. He became a lawyer and later was accepted to a law master’s program at Georgetown University, which he did not complete.

Years later, after his children started their own families and careers, Engel found himself back in the classroom. Instead of studying for a potential job or career, this time he was learning for learning’s sake.

The Pikesville resident enrolled at UMBC as part of the Catonsville university’s Golden ID program, which allows retirees to return to school at “little cost.” He was now a senior, taking college classes in the modern age from some professors who weren’t born when he was first a student and alongside classmates many decades younger. And he emerged with a 4.0 GPA and his second bachelor’s degree.

Pete Engel, 72, left, gets some help with his graduation gown from his son Don Engel, who is an assistant professor of computer science at UMBC.

“A lot of people give lip service to the idea of a lifetime of learning,” said Brian Taylor, who Engel said is his favorite professor so far at UMBC. “You see Pete living that out.”

Engel took a class on the Civil War with Taylor in the spring, and Taylor said Engel was the only student who kept his camera on during the virtual class. Taylor said that of all the older students he has taught, none have been as engaged as Engel.

Since that class, the pair have kept in touch, meeting for coffee or an Orioles game to talk history, politics and sports.

Engel will continue taking classes at UMBC to earn a master’s in history, a degree he started during his last semester in the undergraduate program.

Pete Engel, 72, graduated from UMBC on Thursday morning with a bachelor’s degree in history and a 4.0 GPA. He is a participant in the Golden ID program, which lets Maryland residents 60 and older attend school at "little cost."

The recent graduate learned about the university’s Golden ID program from his son, Don Engel, a faculty member in UMBC’s computer science and electrical engineering department. Don Engel said he doesn’t remember how he found out about Golden ID or when he told his father. Rather, what stuck with him and what he shares with anyone around him, is how his father joined the program and that anyone could do so just like him.

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“I think people are super-interested in sort of getting more education for the sake of knowledge, knowledge for the sake of contributing to society through intellectual discourse,” Don Engel said. “I’ve been fortunate now to know a lot about [the Golden ID program] through [my father’s] experience.”

To enter the Golden ID program, potential students must be 60 and older, retired, primarily living off retirement benefits and a Maryland resident. Participants don’t have to pursue a degree.

Pete Engel said he doesn’t remember much from his first undergraduate experience at the University of Maryland, though he recognized changes in how lessons are taught. In one of his history classes, a professor played the 1983 film “The Return of Martin Guerre,” a story set in 16th century France. He said it was a first for him, as movies weren’t played in his original college classrooms.

In interactions with his peers, Engel said his age has lightheartedly come into play, though all fellow students have been accepting of him.

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During a graduate-level course, a woman did a paper on the Vietnam War Memorial, and Engel mentioned veterans against the war from that time period she could study. She replied with a thank you, he said, but that she could reach out to her own grandfather for research. There was another time when he was leaving a class with fellow peers, and he wanted to double-check if it was cool and inclusive to say “you guys” when bidding farewell to one another.

Pete Engel, 72, listens during the commencement ceremony at UMBC.

“I said, ‘I’ll see you guys next time. So I said to the woman in my class, ‘Is it still OK to say that?’” Engel recounted. She said it was.

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Don Engel said his father’s presence helps contribute to and exemplify UMBC’s diversity and its many facets, including age. For example, he said, his father’s experiences bring an invaluable perspective to studying history.

“I think that there’s also tremendous educational value to everyone in a classroom when you have a variety of perspectives,” Don Engel said. “And age is one of those perspectives.”

As Pete Engel crossed the stage at UMBC’s 79th commencement, wearing a hood instead of a stole to represent his previous law degree and a pocket watch from his grandfather, his son rose from his seat with the faculty to meet his father at the bottom of the ramp. He pulled his father in for a hug.

Before Pete Engel left the arena, he made sure to take selfies with his classmates.

Outside, the Engel family reconvened and his twin grandsons gave him a stuffed bear with a graduation cap just like his.


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