Institute lets seniors be scholars too

The last time Audrey Van Deren attended classes on campus, the West Bank didn’t exist.
These days, she passes the campus on her way to Coffman Memorial Union, the building where she attends some of her classes through the ElderLearning Institute.
“It’s fun being on campus again,” said Van Deren, a 66-year-old who graduated from the University in 1952. “I get a kick out of being back in school.”
The institute that she takes those classes through, one of about 200 affiliated with colleges and universities across North America, allows retirement-age people to take non-credit classes to keep active in the community.
“I was at a point where I wanted to take some classes, and I wanted to take them with people who are at the same point in their life as me,” she said.
The classes, which include Great Pipe Organs of the Twin Cities, Classic Scandinavian Films, and Finance and Investing, are offered on about 30 different topics that are usually not found at universities or community centers.
“I am able to take classes that I couldn’t take as an undergraduate student,” said Helen Livingston, who graduated from the University in 1972 after working for the Red Cross after World War II, getting married, and raising three children.
The class sessions generally follow the University calendar, having three eight-week sessions in addition to a summer program each year.
The membership fee is $175 per year, entitling members to take at least two classes per session. Additional classes can be taken if space allows.
Retired and current University professors from around the area, as well as retired and current community leaders, lead the classes.
“I became involved because you can only clean the garage so many times — I wanted to keep involved,” said Donn Coddington, retired assistant director of the Minnesota Historical Society. Coddington is also an institute member taking three classes this session.
“The common denominator is a passion for learning and teaching,” said Steve Benson, ElderLearning Institute executive director. Benson is a former radio producer at KUOM.
He also leads a class or two each quarter. “I think that it’s important for the director to be intimately involved.”
Although several of the classes are held in Coffman Union, some are held at other campus locations. Still others are held off-campus, depending on requirements specific to the class. For example, a theology class is held at a nearby church, and a class on art collecting is held at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
In addition to the institute classes, the program also participates in non-traditional educational activities.
In February, a group from the institute went to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and they plan to visit Oaxaca, Mexico next year to study the country’s cultural diversity. The group also plans to visit colonial Williamsburg, Va., within the year.
“The trips provide a unique learning experience for the members as well as for the ELI program,” Benson said.
In addition, a proposal is currently being considered that would pair University College of Liberal Arts honor students with the institute’s students. The group would study the culture of the 1960s.
“We want to take a creative approach to intergenerational learning,” Benson said.
Funding for the institute comes from membership fees, the University and a $6,000 grant from the Minnesota Humanities Commission.
Mark Gleason, vice-president of the commission, said that they usually don’t support an organization like the institute, but this time they made an exception.
“We thought it was important to support humanities-based adult education, so we made a new funding line to provide ongoing support for ELI.”
Benson and a group of retired faculty members conceived the idea for ELI in early 1995 and proposed it to Melvin George, then-vice president of Institutional Relations, and Ann O’Loughlin, coordinator of Institutional Relations, who accepted the proposal after hearing about a similar program at the University of Minnesota–Duluth. The first classes began in fall 1995.
Although graduates say they enjoy being back on campus, several have noticed major changes.
“There used to be a beautiful ballroom in Coffman Union where students could dance,” said Mary Adams, a 1948 undergraduate and 1970 graduate student. “Where do all the students dance now?”
“I was shocked to see the way Coffman Union looked,” said Livingston. “It used to look so new and nice.”
Still, Van Deren noticed one similarity: “Most of the issues we discussed in college 40 years ago are still being debated today. I thought that those issues would have been resolved long ago.”