By Brooklyn Wayland
The Tuscan sun is warm on Ellen (known as “Ellie” to friends and family) Wisdom’s face as she walks to class in downtown Arezzo, Italy.
A small town, the store owners wave and call “ciao” as she walks by. In class, she will be asked to recall her Italian vocabulary words she has been practicing around town.
Every afternoon after class, she goes to a small coffee bar called Sugar where she chats with the barista, Simonetta, as she makes what Wisdom recalls as “the best cup of coffee in the world” and then practices her Italian with the ever so patient cameriera (waitress) names Silvia.
There is just nothing more exciting than getting to take Italian classes amid the Italian culture; in fact, it is one of Wisdom’s favorite parts of studying abroad.
The University of Oklahoma has an overwhelming percent of students who study abroad. Wisdom is almost like any OU student who gets to study abroad except for one thing: Ellen Wisdom is 69-years-old.
Wisdom isn’t the “typical” OU student: She has smile wrinkles that tell anyone who encounters her of a life full of laughter, gray hair, although sparse, has begun to sprout like the first few leaves that soon give way to autumn. Her spunk shines through as her eyes gleam and laughter escapes when talking about not taking her husband’s last name when they got married all those years ago.
For Wisdom, being an OU student is made possible by an Oklahoma law that makes auditing classes at public universities in Oklahoma completely free for students over the age of 65. Wisdom has taken advantage of this and now gets to enjoy all the Italian classes at OU she could imagine.
There is an old proverb that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks but research within the last 50 years says otherwise. Overall, the research suggests that you can never be too old to learn a new skill, even if that is speaking Italian. However, it is definitely harder than learning something new at such an old age; this is because the neuroplasticity (the ability for your brain to change over time) in your brain decreases as you get older.
Regardless of the struggles of learning a new language later in life, Wisdom has never felt better than getting to learn the language of the place she has fallen in love with over the years. She attributes Italian to keeping her mind young and yoga and swimming to keeping her body feeling young.
According to Whitby School, “Because the language centers in the brain are so flexible, learning a second language can develop new areas of your mind and strengthen your brain’s natural ability to focus.” Other various studies have shown that learning a second language can not only keep your mind sharp but help improve its function.
Wisdom learned French in high school and was fascinated with the idea of learning another language as she went through her life. She was always a good student and loved school and now she gets to cultivate that love of school once again.
“I always do my homework,” said Wisdom as she chuckled.
Irene Bulla, Wisdom’s Italian professor, admires Wisdom’s curiosity and diligence in the course. Bulla recalls that Wisdom has a special way of letting her passion for learning the Italian culture bring the whole class together; her love for learning is contagious.
“I’m not worried about my grades this time around. I mainly care about understanding,” said Wisdom. However, a little bit of her high-achieving personality still remains as she still recounts not being able to completely disregard her grades.
Sophia Lee is a fellow Italian student and also studied abroad in Arezzo, Italy. She is inspired by Wisdom; in fact, Wisdom serves as a reminder that it’s never too late to learn and improve upon something you are passionate about.
A gentle and kind woman who doesn’t look a day over 45, Wisdom somehow manages to split her time between her hobbies, husband, children and grandchildren as well as her school work.
Back in 2011, her busy schedule was put on hold after Wisdom was involved in a serious accident.
While walking on campus, she was hit by a biker. This accident resulted in various injuries, including one in her brain that led to her retirement from the University of Oklahoma’s school of social work.
It was a long recovery process. Wisdom recalls having to relearn so many things she had been doing for years such as yoga.
After significant recovery, Wisdom found herself in Arezzo, Italy, alongside her husband Robert Griswold, a well-respected history professor at the University of Oklahoma in the fall of 2013 as Professor Griswold served as the faculty in residence in OU’s Italian study center.
Wisdom sat in on a few Italian classes with the students in Arezzo that fall and realized something incredible: learning Italian also made her English better.
Now Wisdom travels to Arezzo each time Griswold takes students to study abroad.
“Arezzo has become a second home to me,” said Wisdom.
They have been to Italy four times and plan to continually go back. In fact, Wisdom is working diligently on her two Italian classes this fall to prepare for a fifth trip to Arezzo this coming spring. She says each time she goes, her Italian gets better.
This past summer Robert and she spent a month in Arezzo.
“Ellie and I have great memories of last summer,” said Griswold. After leaving Arezzo, they continued on through Europe for the rest of the summer months, enjoying their time exploring and learning: one of their favorite things to do.
While she was there, she took a week-long intensive Italian class and she said she has never had more fun. Every time Wisdom finds herself in Arezzo, she wanders the Italian streets and loves chatting with locals who have become her friends.
At the age of 69, Wisdom still has a hunger for knowledge and always jumps at a new opportunity to learn a new Italian word, yoga pose or new trick her young grandsons acquire.
Now, just like every student she walks across campus to class, does her homework and even studies for exams.
You can often find her at Crimson and Cream on Campus Corner, copying down her Italian homework. She always has a long day ahead of her between her two Italian classes, yoga, various appointments and then a phone call or two with her grandkids.
The proverb may say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but Wisdom proves you can learn something new, even a new language, at the age of 69.