Stanford University is looking for a new kind of student: proven leaders, with 20 to 30 years of work experience, seeking to reinvent their futures.

A small experiment launched this week offers older students the opportunity not to retire but retrain -- and commit to new and meaningful projects.

The yearlong Distinguished Careers Institute is not for everyone. It will pluck 20 high achievers and place them in one of the most elite educational environments in the world to swap experiences and insights with their generations younger classmates.

But the model, if successful, could be adapted by community colleges and other universities so the nation's growing ranks of Baby Boomers could apply their knowledge, skills and professional relationships in new realms.

"Retirement in the traditional sense is not really healthy," said Institute director Dr. Phil Pizzo, a 69-year-old pediatrician, researcher, and former dean of the Stanford School of Medicine who awakes by 4:30 a.m. each day to run six to seven miles.

"What you need to stay healthy is to be physically well, intellectually motivated and stimulated to take on new challenges and form social communities," he said. "And to continue to do that over time."

Enrollment is open now, for a school year that starts in January. The school is looking for candidates with 20- to 30-year histories of significant career achievement who are ready to explore new professional trajectories and who can pay the $60,000 tuition. (Specific guidelines are at dci.stanford.edu/becoming-a-fellow.)

They'll be mentored by some of the university's brightest lights, such as Pizzo, School of Engineering Dean James D. Plummer and School of Business professor Margaret Neale, who will help develop personalized "scholarly pathways" toward achieving their goals. Participants can audit any of the university's hundreds of academic offerings, take part in think tanks and seminars, and meet regularly with faculty and students.

Pizzo has met with nearly 100 experts, on campus and off, to plan ways to harness older workers' skills and experience to catapult them into new endeavors. The university will work with global job placement centers to connect fellows with volunteer or paid employment.

The institute is on the frontier of a new range in higher education, "essentially school for the second half of life," said Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Encore.org, a nonprofit organization focused on social careers for Baby Boomers. "The initiative holds the potential to pioneer a new model," said Freedman, author of The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife.

In traditional retirement, elders are supposed to get out of the way and out of work. But a growing number of "second actors," people like Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and Bill Gates, show what experienced second-career executives can accomplish.

Universities can expand their role in not just stimulating the first phase of a career but helping create mid- to later-career life transitions, as well, said Pizzo.

Few programs now exist to help. The leader is Harvard's Advanced Leadership Initiative that began in 2008. Its fellows are dedicated to finding solutions for societal problems. Unlike Stanford's program, Harvard fellows come with a specific project mapped out.

Pizzo said that in a decade of thinking about the issues, two demographic facts caught his attention: Baby Boomers will represent one-quarter of the U.S. population by 2029. And they're living longer and healthier lives.

He saw that some people resist the traditional retirement ideal of leisure, so continue working even though their skills have lost their edge. Others embrace retirement but quickly grow bored. Still others don't have the financial ability to fully retire, yet don't know what other work they can do. These people represent a huge untapped societal resource, he believes.

Los Angeles-based investment banker Skip Victor used the Harvard program to shift from a stellar career in corporate restructuring to build Academic Exchange, which organizes educational missions to Israel for scholars in political science, international relations, history, law and journalism. He also studied music composition, neuroscience, China and health-care law and policy.

"When you're young, you're trying to figure out what you want to do. Then you become focused on a specific set of questions and problems. It is just not possible to explore," Victor said. "There is great freedom in being a beginner again," he said. Now he mentors Harvard students who seek his advice in business and public service.

The Stanford program will "create change, 20 people at a time," said Pizzo.

"If our fellows become models that deliver new organizations, they'll be champions of the future."

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.

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More information about Stanford's Distinguished Careers Institute is available at http://dci.stanford.edu