10:37 AM

Curiosity, passion for science knows no age limits

Two men in blue shirts standing among exercise equipment
Jabir Al-Hilali, left, and Jeff Schmitz don't think age is a factor when it comes to being passionate about learning. Both say they're acquiring knowledge in their Exercise and Health Sciences program that will help them manage their own health, as well as help others.

With most schools and universities back in session, it's easy to picture new batches of eager young learners back in classes this fall. But a wave of students over the age of 50 has been slowly transforming college student populations, with older adults returning to campus to catch up on missed or yearned-for educational opportunities.

At University of Houston-Clear Lake, there are some students who don't quite fit the profile of the average young learner. As reported by the university's Office of Institutional Effectiveness, in fall 2016, a total of 537 students between the ages of 45-70 or over were enrolled. That number increased to 545 in fall 2021.

Jeff Schmitz and Jabir Al-Hilali achieved undergraduate and graduate degrees decades ago; Schmitz served in the Navy, retired with the rank of commander, and then continued a career in the private sector in engineering and nuclear power. He later got a master's degree in environmental engineering. Al-Hilali had a full career as an architect and then as a certified public accountant with an MBA.

Neither Schmitz nor Al-Hilali, both 68, needs the degree to advance a career. However, both are intensely interested in finding ways to manage their own respective health issues, as well as support other people in transitioning to a healthier lifestyle. That's why they're both working toward their Master of Science in Exercise and Health Sciences.

"All my life, exercise was important to me, but I just felt like I never got to do it as I wanted to," said Al-Hilali, who retired from KPMG, a Big Four accounting firm, this year. "Part of retirement is that you get to do things you always wanted to do, but you never got around to it. Before, I had to prioritize other things. Now it's my time, and I have the opportunity to study exercise."

About 10 years ago, Al-Hilali said he'd been diagnosed with osteopenia, a condition that occurs when the body doesn't make new bone as quickly as it reabsorbs old bone. "A nutritionist told me that load-bearing exercise was what I needed, so I got one-on-one coaching and saw my decline and then, my recovery after starting the exercise," he said. "I found another place that had its own proprietary equipment and computers and could record data. I said I'd like to buy a franchise, and I did."

Al-Hilali and his wife are now the owners of The Exercise Coach in Pearland. "I was impressed by the results I could achieve through exercise and the right diet, but strength is a big component in terms of the physiology of how the body reacts, and I thought I needed higher learning to understand more. So I said, I will go for my master's degree."

He said it's not about getting the master's degree — it's about curiosity. "The more you dig, the more you learn," he said. "My goal is to educate and help people as they get older, and avoid medical issues. I work with a lot of people who are over 45. There are a lot of people who have these problems, and exercise can be the solution."

Schmitz said he'd always loved sports and had run track and cross country when he was younger. "One of the things I really enjoyed was refereeing my kids' soccer games," he said. "I loved the physical activity. The most intense time of my refereeing was in my 50s, and I never thought I was too old."

Recently, after having time to think about what he really wanted to do, he began researching universities for an exercise science program and found UHCL.

"I thought, I could be passionate about this," he said. "During the pandemic, I studied online to become a personal trainer with a specialty in corrective exercise. I'm passionate about my own fitness and health."

His interest in corrective exercise stems from his own leg injury in 2019, which resulted in three major surgeries in one year. "I have gone from wheelchair to walker to cane, to walking unassisted," he said. "I still have a bit of a limp, but it's getting better. Working in clinical exercise physiology, we are learning to deal with people who are recovering from injuries like mine."

For their graduate studies, both Al-Hilali and Schmitz selected the new Clinical Exercise Physiology concentration in UHCL's Exercise and Health Sciences master's program. Previously, students trained in the program's Public Health and Sport Science concentrations. However, in fall 2020, UHCL began offering the Clinical Exercise Physiology track to better prepare students for emerging opportunities in the healthcare sector.

So, what do Al-Hilali and Schmitz hope to do with their degrees once they've graduated?

Al-Hilali said he might be interested in purchasing a second Exercise Coach franchise, or perhaps begin doing research. "I'd like to put to use what I've learned," he said. "I'd like to do research and go deeper."

Both know they're "non-traditional" students, but it doesn't seem to matter much. "Part of my passion is that by being older, I don't feel limited," Schmitz said. "Everyone I've interacted with here has been supportive."

He added that he's not sure if he'd like to become a practitioner or do research. "Maybe I'll do both — I don't have to limit myself," he said. "I'd be interested in doing cardiac rehabilitation. My science background is helping me in my classes now. Anyone who thinks they could never go back to school because of their age should know, they're more capable than what they might realize."

To learn more about UHCL's Exercise and Health Sciences program, go online.