Senior citizens take courses

by Stacy Jo

Conventional wisdom says young people can learn a lot from their elders. As it turns out, some elders are interested in doing a little learning of their own.
And with the assistance of the University College’s ElderLearning Institute, they are afforded more opportunities than ever before.
In its four years of existence, the program has changed its residence from Executive Director Steve Benson’s home, to his car, to its present quarters in Wesbrook Hall.
Twenty-nine course offerings are available to the 400 “seasoned citizens” — a moniker officials prefer to call their mostly retired participants — taking part in the program, some of whom begin courses today.
“We think the ElderLearning Institute is something for people to retire to,” said Benson, the program’s only paid staff member.
In the vernacular of the program, students are called members, professors are course leaders, and classes are topic discussion groups.
Members attend weekly, non-credit courses ranging from the more technical topics of geology and memoir writing to a course on how preparing and eating food with others affects relationships. Retired faculty or program members who have a strong interest in the topic lead the courses on a volunteer basis.
“We get a lot more than we give,” said participant and course leader Patt Christensen.
What members do give is a $175 fee that allows them to participate in at least two courses offered during each of the fall, winter and spring sessions. The program, one of 240 ElderLearning Institutes nationwide, also offers special summer sessions, luncheon programs and tours.
However, members said the on-campus interaction between institute members and University day students is minimal; the two groups have few chances to relate to one another. The institute sponsored one intergenerational course consisting of one-half institute members and one-half University students last year, but little effort has been made since.
Strengthening that connection is one of the program staff’s highest priorities. Benson said University students could benefit extensively from their elder counterparts’ experience.
“We’re very open to utilizing the talents of our members to help students and faculty,” Benson said.
Because some members have as much, and occasionally even more, experience with the topic than the course leader, the entire classroom atmosphere is changed, members said. The course leaders and members have a more informal, peer-to-peer relationship than the hierarchy that exists in a typical classroom.
Further, the life experience members bring to the classroom creates an enlivened, highly personal and participatory environment, said Mary Quinlivan. Besides enrolling in and leading courses, Quinlivan serves on the program’s curriculum committee.
Christensen and her husband, Otto, are veterans of the program; both have enrolled in and led courses since the institute’s inception. The pair also coordinates the program’s highly popular travel component, which this year will include trips to educational sites in Virginia, Illinois and Guatemala.