Clarice Belcher is 58. She taught English at community colleges, worked at a newspaper, and never thought much about economics. But her life partner is interested in the subject, so Belcher decided to enroll in an economics class at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Emory University in Atlanta.
"Honestly, at the end of that [class], I said, 'This is not rocket science. I can do this. I can understand this. I can learn this!'" Belcher says.
Since taking her first class in spring of 2011, Belcher has enrolled in several more courses and is currently a member of the curriculum committee. At OLLI, many students are experienced enough to also teach courses, and with her education background, Belcher now teaches a class called The Language of Compassion. She's also enrolled in The History of Vietnam, which has been a real eye-opener for her.
"I wasn't affected by Vietnam in the same way that I know a lot of people were. I didn't know men who went there. It's as if I have a chance to get caught up on a piece of my generation that I missed," she says.
Classes geared toward older students are not unusual at American universities, though their labels can get tricky. Courses like the ones Belcher has attended and taught are sometimes referred to as lifelong learning classes, or they might be part of a continuing education department. Some courses are offered for credit, and some are not.
There are 117 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes in universities across the country that receive grant money from the Bernard Osher Foundation, an organization that provides funding to post-secondary schools for various programs. The institutes offer noncredit courses to people age 50 and older. But the idea is the same across the board: to continue learning for yourself rather than for a degree.
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Belcher points out that no one in her Osher classes is attending because their parents told them to, and they aren't showing up because they feel it's the next step after high school. Her classmates and students decided they wanted to expand the breadth of their knowledge, and they are simply making that happen.
Lifelong learning is not limited to the classroom. Brandon Garcia, director of public relations for continuing education at University of Utah, says the most popular courses in the university's continuing education program are fitness classes such as yoga and triathlon training.
Garcia is a lifelong learning student, too, though he prefers courses such as classical guitar, sculpture, and meditation. He double majored in ecology and philosophy for his undergraduate degree and says he was very "nose to the grindstone." With noncredit, lifelong learning classes, there are no exams or grades.
"You're actually just diving in," Garcia says of the freedoms of continuing education. "You're just there to soak it in."
And often, people who take classes simply to learn rather than to fulfill a graduation requirement or please teachers seem to want to talk about it. Belcher and King Mengert, the OLLI program manager at Emory, along with Garcia in Utah, say that there never seems to be a lack of discussion in their lifelong learning classes. And like the camaraderie that often builds in more traditional discussion classes, Garcia says the intellectual discourse once or twice a week in continuing education courses can build a community feel.
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"There's something about collective learning where you really form bonds with people. You're working on projects together; you're excited about things together; and I think that you form unique friendships in that environment," Garcia says.
Those class discussions are part of what brought Sal DePasquale to OLLI. Both a teacher and a student, he says that before he began taking classes at Emory, he was annoyed at the nonstop chatter of television news reporters and pundits.
"I desperately was seeking some place where I could have a discourse that wasn't shouting heads, as I was getting, where I could have a discourse with people that I felt were at least on the same planet that I was on," he says.