Retirees return to campus as volunteers

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Barbara Ruben

With its red brick buildings and rolling lawns, the University of Maryland in College Park feels like a quintessential college campus. But unlike many colleges, the university has a robust volunteer program for older adults.

Called Senior Volunteer Service Corps, the group places volunteers in departments throughout campus.

Have a flair for words? Try tutoring at the Writing Center. Do you have a background in accounting? The Departments of Communication, Family Studies and Engineering could use help.

Theater and arts buffs can volunteer as ushers with the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

A Confucius scholar helps with a special library collection.

“People go where their passions are,” said Linda Mendelsohn, the volunteer corps’ coordinator and a former volunteer herself.

Mendelsohn spent much her career working in the University of Maryland’s Dept. of Facilities Management. She later became a volunteer for the Writing Center, and now works part time to coordinate the more than 100 older volunteers on campus.

Mendelsohn’s takeaway from her earlier volunteer stint tutoring undergraduates in writing their papers? “It was very eye opening how badly the King’s English has deteriorated since I learned it years ago,” she lamented.

Still — or perhaps because of things like that — she and other volunteers have found their work on campus to be fulfilling.

Helping international students

Retired teacher Brenda Cooley has spent the last 10 years volunteering with international students at the university. For a while she taught a weekly class for spouses of graduate students from countries as far flung as China and Argentina.

She also helped them acclimate to America, tutoring them on the finer points of English idioms and helping them make friends on campus.

Cooley continues to keep in touch with a number of members of the group, but now works with international students themselves to improve their spoken English. “I think of it as building friendships through language,” she said.

Most recently, she’s been working with students from Panama and Taiwan. Cooley helped the Panamanian student find information about lupus for his mother, who suffers from the disease.

“When we found out his mother couldn’t come from Panama for graduation, [Cooley and her husband] said, ‘We’ll be your [honorary] grandparents and come see you graduate.’”

Volunteers give and get

Cooley, who is 72 and lives in Greenbelt, also likes knowing she’s helping the university at a time when budget cutting is taking a toll.

“There are so many things that need to be done and so few hands to do them,” she said.

Cooley and her husband are also finding they spend more time on campus, going to football or basketball games or performances together. “I feel more connected to the university,” she said.

Volunteers receive some benefits reserved for faculty, including discounts for admission to events, a parking permit, university library card and email address.

College Park resident Sharon von Bergener also works with students from other countries in a program called English Editing for International Graduate Students, or EEGIS for short.

This work is primarily done via email. Students email writing assignments, from a few paragraphs to entire theses, for volunteers to help whip into shape. Von Bergener now coordinates the EEGIS program. The former English major retired early from a patent law firm.

“I just love the written word, and I like to help polish papers,” she said. “We make the paper sound better without interfering with the research. It’s quite challenging.”

Von Bergener said she’s learned a lot by editing the papers, which have covered everything from Turkish ancient ruins to computer programming.

“It’s rewarding. They’re very appreciative,” she said.

To learn more about opportunities through the Senior Service Volunteer Corps, go to, call (301) 226-4750, or email