How to stay active and engaged after retiring from higher education

Tips for making the most of leaving the workforce

As senior administrators approach retirement, there are a number of strategies they can use to feel engaged and productive after leaving the working world, Sandra Sabo writes for Business Officer Magazine.

For busy administrators, the idea of being sedentary in retired life can be anxiety-provoking. "I was constantly worried that I would be bored to death when I retired," says Frank Claus, who spent 25 years at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) before retiring in 2008 as the school's treasurer and vice president of finance.

However, Claus has been very active during his retirement—something he credits to planning. While working at Penn, he would often make lists of activities he planned to do when he left. "Those lists gave me comfort that I would have enough interesting things lined up to do every day," he says.

Today, Claus is active in his church, volunteers as treasurer for a community festival, and serves as chair of a local nursing home.

Sabo spoke to several higher education administrators about how they prepared for retirement and what they have been doing since they left the workforce. Overall, many said the key to a happy and engaging retirement was a combination of flexibility and proper planning.

Getting acclimated

Kathy Lindahl is now retired, but previously served as assistant VP of finance and operations at Michigan State University, Ann Arbor (MSU-AA). She says retirement helped her learn not to let her life be defined by her job title. "I didn't want someone at my funeral to say, 'Oh, she was such a hard worker for Michigan State,'" she says.

Lindahl realized what truly engaged her in her work was helping people, something she has sought to continue into retirement. She actively volunteers at an assisted living facility and is considering additional volunteer work at a hospice.

However, Lindahl cautions others from rushing into commitments. When she retired in 2012, she consciously took several months to "recalibrate" and think about how she wanted to spend her time.

"We're so planned in higher education that it can be hard living without structure," she cautions.

Bill Krumm, former VP and chief financial officer at Texas A&M University, College Station, agrees that taking some time to get perspective as you begin retirement is important. "In the months before you retire, you'll be given a wide variety of opportunities to serve any number of organizations. If you volunteer right away, however, you can quickly become very busy," Krumm says.

Staying connected to campus

Krumm has kept campus a part of his life in retirement. He often attends athletic events and volunteers in his former university's sports museum. Lindahl also maintains her connection with MSU-AA, volunteering to mentor female students.

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In other cases, administrators choose to pursue more formal connections with the institutions they retired from. John Palmucci, who retired in 2010 as vice president of finance and treasurer of Loyola College in Maryland, continues to serve the school as a consultant. "The consulting piece is a good way to go to keep your head and your mind going while still being able to control your time and level of activity," he says.

Palmucci also says his financial acumen and experience has led him to other opportunities, such as serving on the board of the Maryland University of Integrative Health.

The skills administrators develop in professional life can be very marketable later on, notes Pat Gustavson, who spent most of her career as chief business officer at John Brown University. "Business officers can contribute a lot, particularly in nonprofit organizations where your business skills can be a huge help," she says. Gustavson herself became treasurer of her condo association shortly after retiring.

Others use their retirement as an opportunity to go in a different direction. Krumm has used his time to develop an entirely new set of skills. He has trained in emergency management and developed his woodworking hobby. He makes bowls and canes, purely for enjoyment. "If I started selling the items, wood turning would become more of a job—and I don't want the pressure of a job," he says (Sabo, Business Officer Magazine, February 2015).

The takeaway: Retired higher ed leaders say that the key to an active and engaged retirement is a combination of flexibility and planning, giving yourself time to adjust, and seeking other opportunities to apply your skills.

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