Local FlagSHIP course connects wisdom of past and curiosity of the present, creating a bridge between generations

Stages of Life graphic featuring seniors on Zoom
April 9, 2024
By Anna Boone
Without studying abroad or even leaving town, students in one Flagler College course are dynamically engaging with a population they may otherwise rarely interact with: members of their grandparents’ generations.

“How do you think about older generations? And how do older generations think about Generation Z?”  

These are guiding questions that Andrea McCook, a Flagler performing arts professor, poses at the beginning of her course “Stages of Life: A Bridge Between Generations.” Through a central “POV” letter-writing assignment, students have an opportunity to transform wisdom and life experiences from interviews with seniors into applicable insights for their own perspectives on aging.   

Headshot of Sophomore Shannon Speakman

This semester, Sophomore Fine Arts student, Shannon Speakman, interviewed former Staten Island Ferryman and Vietnam veteran, 76-year-old Patrick Dennis.  

“Dear Patrick Dennis ‘Passenger,’ I am writing to you, my younger self, from the future.  I can see us now, a boy only eighteen years young, joining in the cause for freedom and peace,” the opening lines of Speakman’s letter read. “We are only at the start of life’s journey of self-discovery when we face being shipped away—a young passenger—to fight in a man’s war.” 

2024 JanTerm "Stages of Life" group picture at the Council on Aging

As one of several local options offered as a Flagler’s Sophomore High Impact Practice (FlagSHIP), McCook bolsters “Stages of Life” with immersive visits to Allegro Senior Living, a St. Augustine retirement facility; and the St. Johns Council on Aging, a regional non-profit center serving primarily under-resourced seniors and their caretakers. 

“It's nice that we get to stay [in St. Augustine],” a student from McCook’s recent JanTerm section of the course, Emma Moberg said. “We get to be involved in this community.” 

A May 2019 pilot FlagSHIP program planted a seed of enthusiasm among our Flagler community for this type of student experience. 

One of those pilot courses “Incarceration and Emancipation,” led locally by Dean for the School of Creative Arts & Letters Leslie Robison exhibited the high impact nature of this opportunity.  

 After interruption by the pandemic and virtual instruction, the FlagSHIP Program officially re-launched for students in January of 2022. This two-week capstone to Flagler’s Core Experience builds off the College’s First Year Seminar and the signature general education Core Curriculum

“The purpose of FlagSHIP is intercultural competence,” McCook said, referring to- in the case of her own FlagSHIP experience- seemingly

Early FlagSHIP fair

 distinct generations. “That is, coming to understand other people and being exposed to different kinds of people.” 

With that guiding purpose, faculty members like McCook identified populations of focus- locally, nationally, and abroad- whom they could help students engage with through their respective areas of expertise.  

From the get-go, McCook has confidently pulled in the transformative practice of embodiment through her expertise of theatre and its power to get students “comfortable with being somebody else, being somebody different.” 

“The idea is to embody an 85-year-old and tell their story,” she said. 

The population of focus for “Stages of Life” happened to come from a conversation McCook had with her 90-year-old mother, a current resident of a Pennsylvania continuing care retirement community (CRCC).  

“Originally my plan, and she helped me figure this out, was to see if students could shadow a senior through their day,” she said about the idea to have students shadow and interview residents of St. Augustine’s local Allegro retirement facility. 

2024 JanTerm "Stages of Life" visit to the Allegro

2024 JanTerm "Stages of Life" visit to the Allegro

Pandemic limitations interrupted FlagSHIP’s first two years of institutional development, and as a result, McCook said her initial plan “evolved” out of necessity. Luckily, Zoom’s then newfound popularity allowed McCook to easily translate her method of engagement to remote interviews.  

“The whole time I've been talking to my mom and running ideas by her...” she said, explaining that it was through this close relationship she realized the great potential in engaging the students with her mother’s fellow-residents in the Pennsylvania CRCC.  

Now two years after the first January 2022 iteration of “Stages in Life,” past pandemic-related restrictions no longer affect how McCook can

Andrea McCook shot

 structure the course. 

Despite that, she’s found that video interviews with seniors in her mother’s Pennsylvania retirement community present an especially diverse group of senior perspectives, ensure consistent senior participation, and add a valuable layer of personal meaning to “Stages of Life.”     

“These are [my mother’s] peers, her friends,” she said about the participating seniors, who represent multiple generations born from the 1930s to 1950s. She noted that, because of its attractive resources and structure, residents of this specific CRCC come from across the country with a diversity of professional experience and worldviews.  

From the Great Depression to the Vietnam War, from heartwarming love stories to tales of resilience, the seniors candidly share their insights. 

“I’m that in-between Boomer stage,” Patrick Dennis said during this year’s group discussion which preceded one-on-one Zoom breakout meetings with the student, senior pairs. “I was born in 1948, so I got the tail end of World War 2 and Korea. And then along came the 60s and Vietnam. I’m a child of conflict, I consider it. I went through the Civil Rights Movement, right in the middle of the Detroit Riots. I’ve got some different ideas on social remedies and things." 

Through these virtual interviews, students learn from those who have weathered life’s storms, celebrated victories, and navigated the complexities of being human. In her POV letter, Shannon Speakman extracted several insights of hope from Dennis’ life story:  

“Sailors say to look on the horizon when you are feeling seasick. That is how I encourage you to carry on, even as the waves ebb and flow and tides are ever-changing. When the world is in turmoil and all is dizzying and difficult to discern, find the soft line in the sky,” one portion of her letter read. “As a ferryman guides his passengers... we will lead others in confidence that all storms pass away eventually. In the midst of life’s adversities, so long as our hands guide the helm, we will never live in a day without laughter,” she continued, signing off the letter with the mantra: “only better days ahead.” 

Official FlagSHIP graphic

McCook believes “Stages of Life” creates a useful practice in empathy for everyone involved, encouraging an assessment of personal cultural orientations toward aging and biases about contrasting generations. 

“It has made me a better daughter to my 90-year-old mother,” she said, always reminding herself to be kind. “It's also a reminder for me to take advantage of every day and to think carefully about how I'm living my life and what that means for the future.”