Historically, studies have shown that one of the most often overlooked challenges faced by professionals entering their retirement years is how to replace the sense of purpose that their daily work life once provided. “People who fare the best in retirement find ways to cultivate connections. And yet, almost no one talks about the importance of developing new sources of meaning and purpose,” according to CNBC. Indeed, countless, once highly reputed and well-educated, professionals report experiencing a sense of irrelevance, or the nagging want to feel needed and to matter, after departing their professional roles.

 Staying relevant, to me, means feeling connected across generations to the news of the world and being in a position to help others in a meaningful way. It means I live my life in a manner that bestows value to it. I want it to matter that I still occupy space on this planet,” writes Ann Brenoff in a personal account of her own search to find purpose during her retirement years. Yet, while some retirees long for the days when they had hurried into a bustling office, and made small talk with co-workers, a small but growing group of STEM professionals and experts on the east and west coasts of the U.S. is reclaiming their sense of purpose by leveraging their sought-after skills to play a major role in the lives of students at under-resourced schools. EnCorps recruits, selects and supports STEM professionals and experts in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields as well as individuals who possess an advanced STEM degree to transition to teaching. The opportunity to make an impact on young minds poised to embody the next generation of STEM has resonated with the retired set.

The Why: Finding Joy Again

Many STEM professionals who seek out the kind of guidance that EnCorps provides are highly educated and talented individuals who are looking for more in some aspect of their careers. For Loui Kou, a career transition felt needed after she became a mother herself. As a biomedical engineer, Kou says she “realized [she] wasn’t making a direct impact” and “wanted to do more”. Indeed, the draw to have a direct hand in shaping the next generation of physicists, engineers, and leaders of industries from tech to medicine holds a strong appeal. For seasoned veterans of various STEM fields, seeking information and/or guidance from EnCorps is a natural response to having reached their potential in their respective field, and wanting to leave a legacy of merit behind by helping others.

 The Benefits: Staying Young

Being involved in students’ lives is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a teacher. “I’m an Asian woman,” Kou says; “I am the daughter of an immigrant”. She is well aware of the positive impact she has on her students of color each day, just by being a presence in their academic worlds. “I can ignite a passion for STEM in my students by being there every day, by being a role model, by being enthusiastic about my subject”. Feeling deeply rewarded and purposeful creates personal fulfillment for teachers on a level that touches every aspect of their life.

Seeing STEM professionals from (marginalized) backgrounds can inspire and encourage similar individuals to step up and show the world just what they’re made of,” explains Stephanie Rivas-Lara, a UCLA student pursuing a Master’s of Social Welfare and a former student of an EnCorps Teacher. Many STEM professionals-turned-teachers report feeling a renewed sense of excitement in their lives, and a passion for their fields of expertise.

This was the case for Julian Lewis, an aerospace engineer-turned-high-school-STEM-teacher. ““I had [my students] learning to take something from concept to reality through the process of design, test and build. […] It was the process of visualizing a concept, designing, integrating, building, re-integrating, and looking at the performance and being able to demonstrate and talk about the process.” Lewis’ method of deconstructing and extracting the procedural elements of his former role in engineering airplanes, and restructuring those elements into a workflow that can be applied to his students’ approach to lessons, captures a valuable piece of the puzzle for professionals-turned-teachers.

Countless studies have shown us that the key to maintaining a young, adept mind is to keep it active. If one never stops learning, and continues to apply things in new ways, one’s mind is less likely to dull over time, or due to age. For accomplished retirees, becoming a teacher of STEM students offers an invaluable opportunity to take a look at the sum of their experiences and knowledge, and to reshape it in ways that can provide a useful framework for students who are learning to understand complex STEM subjects.

 The End Game: A Renewed Sense of Purpose

EnCorps holds a unique position as a liaison of sorts, between would-be teachers, and the students who stand to benefit most from a quality STEM education taught by faculty with real world experience. We connect highly effective STEM educators with public school students in a conscious way to counter the systemic injustice that prevents children living in under-resourced communities from accessing a high-quality education. The approach is innovative, and it offers a needed long-term solution to the alarming national teacher shortage, and to the alarming lack of math proficiency of middle and high school students nationwide. 

For retirees, stepping into a classroom where they are needed, if not critical to their students, can come as a refreshing and long-awaited relief. For those retirees who had experienced feeling a lack of purpose or direction, those individuals who have reported wanting to feel like they matter once more, there can be few roles that fulfill this need more than the act of guiding and shaping the nation’s next generation. The likelihood that a STEM retirees’ teaching presence will provide a role model for students who will face obstacles on their paths toward adulthood, makes becoming a STEM teacher deeply fulfilling for retirees looking to engage with the next generation while maintaining their youthful vitality.

Sources: https://www.cnbc.com/2023/03/10/85-year-harvard-happiness-study-found-the-biggest-downside-of-retirement-that-no-one-talks-about.html; https://www.aarpethel.com/ageism/i-admit-it-im-retired-and-have-started-to-feel-irrelevant; https://encorps.org/biomedical-engineer-mom-finds-fulfillment-teaching-stem-students-in-under-resourced-communities/; https://encorps.org/my-students-are-now-working-in-stem-how-a-retired-aerospace-engineer-is-shaping-futures-for-students-in-under-resourced-communities/