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At 84, this senior is a college freshman

Meet the senior who’s actually a freshman — senior citizen, that is. Jack Slotnick earned a Purple Heart in World War II, but never got a college degree. But now he’s working on his B.A. in psychology at Florida’s Lynn University — and after that, he’s aiming for his master’s.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

It’s hard to fault college freshman Jack Slotnick for giving a knowing smile in his Lynn University history class as the professor discusses events that shaped American history. After all, Calvin Coolidge was president when Slotnick was born.

The 84-year-old Floridian was enjoying life away from the workaday world after retiring from two self-owned businesses, but he sensed a void in his life. And as his daily travels often had him driving past Lynn University in Boca Raton, the cause of the void became more and more apparent.

“I felt — not inadequate, that’s not the right word — I felt like something was missing,” Slotnick told NBC News. 

So Slotnick finally stopped by Lynn University’s admissions office. He transferred his credits earned at Brooklyn College decades before and became the oldest incoming student in the university’s history. And in the process, he’s gained a lot of admirers among the traditional 18-to-22-year-old college set.

“I think only Jack can do this; I’ve never met anyone like him,” Slotnick classmate Amanda Gross told the Palm Beach Post.

From Purple Heart to B.A.Slotnick’s story, presented on TODAY Tuesday, is one of a decidedly rare bird in the world of academia. According to the American Association of Retired Persons, only 7 percent of people over the age of 65 pursue higher education.

Those who do often enroll to make good use of their time and keep their minds sharp, but that doesn’t fit Slotnick’s profile: Since joining the freshman class at Lynn, he’s not only declared a major, but has definite ideas on what to do with his degree. (Though he was referred to as a sophomore in the TODAY segment, he is actually one class away from that status.)

While still a teen, Slotnick became an American war hero, earning a Purple Heart as a member of the U.S. Army’s 66th Infantry Division during World War II. Slotnick was aboard the famed SS Leopoldville as it carried soldiers toward the Battle of the Bulge when it was attacked by a German U-boat on Christmas Eve 1944. Some 800 of his fellow soldiers died in the battle.

Now, Slotnick is working toward a psychology degree at Lynn, and plans to put it to good use counseling today’s soldiers as they return from Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I think I can relate better to a returning veteran than somebody who has no concept of what being a soldier is,” Slotnick told the Palm Beach Post. “Evidently, there is more stress or strain on the soldiers of today than when I was in the war. There is something drastically wrong with the amount of suicides [among] the current group of soldiers.

“I’m going to be the oldest practicing psychologist in the U.S.”

Slotnick told NBC he had a few first-day-of-school jitters when he arrived on campus: “The first time I walked into class, [other students] thought I was the professor.”

But being old enough to be those students’ grandpa is nothing compared to the feelings of inadequacy he felt among the retirees in ritzy Palm Beach County before enrolling. “Everybody I know has one or two degrees, so I looked in the mirror and I said, ‘You really are a dumb-dumb. You don’t have a degree,’ ” Slotnick told the Palm Beach Post.

But far from being a dumb-dumb, Lynn University professor Susan Egan Norstrom told NBC Slotnick is someone students on the Lynn campus and beyond can look to for inspiration.

“I think she’s saying that I’m older, but I’m active and I have a good mind,” Slotnick said of Norstrom.