In the 1960s, Tong Kit Ha stopped school at age 13 and began working in a printing factory to support her family.
Five decades later, she went back to the classroom, enrolling in courses such as sociology and gerontology. Alongside her two sons aged 28 and 32, also studying then, she worked on essays and PowerPoint presentations.
In 2012, the 63-year-old graduated with a bachelor's degree in social science from Lingam University. "It was a dream come true. Studying made me feel confident and energetic - though I'm old!"
Madam Tong is among about 50,000 elderly Hong Kongers who have re-entered the classroom under a programme where schools - from primary to tertiary institutions - open their doors for the grey-haired. Today, there are 121 such "Elder Academies".
While a small number of those enrolled - about 400 so far - take classes in eight participating universities, most are in primary and secondary schools where on weekends and after class, the schools' students reverse roles and become teachers, imparting skills in subjects from crafts to computers.
The scheme, now in its ninth year, is being studied by Singapore which, like Hong Kong, has an ageing population.
At least two ministerial delegations from the Republic have visited for a closer look: Health Minister Gan Kim Yong last December and Education Minister Heng Swee Keat last month.
In recent years, Singapore has dipped its toes in what Mr Heng calls "inter-generational learning". To date, 52 schools have participated in a Hong Kong-inspired scheme, spearheaded by non-profit group Council for Third Age. This is likely to be expanded and become more formalised in the education system.
Says Mr Heng in an e-mail interview with The Straits Times: "I am in the midst of studying how we can expand the scope and scale of our activities. I am very keen to consider how we can expand learning opportunities for the elderly - not just to get a qualification, but to enrich their lives."
Inter-generational learning, he notes, is beneficial for the elderly and the students. "There is bonding and the older folks set a good example of life-long learning for the young students - learning that is fun and joyful, learning that is not simply about achieving another qualification for jobs, but learning that enriches lives."
In Hong Kong, the scheme began with no official help, says Professor Alfred Chan, an academic and chairman of the Elderly Commission which provides advice to the government. He went knocking on the doors of 10 schools for help, before one agreed to give it a shot.
Word spread and the government now pitches in with a start-up grant of HK$80,000 (S$14,000) per academy. Costs are minimal, says Prof Chan, given that existing school facilities are used and teachers and students serve as volunteers. The participants pay a token fee of HK$10 to HK$15 a term.
The ultimate goal is for all of Hong Kong's 800 public-sector schools to participate, he says.
At Pak Kau College, a secondary school in Tin Shui Wai, some are learning how to use Google maps. Others work on crafts.
Says student Wong Wing Kit, 17, who was teaching Madam Ma Wai Fong, 68, a retired seamstress: "The old always wonder why we like to play with gadgets like smartphones, while we think they are very stubborn and set in their ways. But by spending time together, I hear their stories and understand them better."
Meanwhile, those keen on a higher education can also attend university classes. Popular ones are health care-related and investment and financial management courses.
For Madam Tong, studying for a degree in her 60s was not easy. "My memory is not very good. And I take two days to do a PowerPoint presentation!"
That said, her classmates, in their early 20s, always welcomed her to join their teams for project work. It helps that her family is supportive. With a laugh, she shares: "My sons say, mummy, you are very clever!"
The tonic of studying
It was a dream come true. Studying made me feel confident and energetic - though I'm old!
- Madam Tong Kit Ha, 63, who stopped school at 13 to work in a printing factory and is now a graduate with a bachelor's degree in social science from Lingam University.
This article was first published on Feb 25, 2015.
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