"Choose Your Own Adventure"
by gayla mills
Some people call it “Elder Education.” Others call it “Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks.” But everyone agrees that examining new ideas, exploring new places and practicing new skills will enrich one’s life. Education can be an ongoing journey, and the three people profiled below show just how diverse that exploration can be.
Building an On-Ramp to Higher Education
“Education helps you build a toolkit for life,” says Dr. Gary Rhodes. “The more tools you have in your toolkit, the more successful you’re going to be at managing your life.” Rhodes has learned the value of education in his own life, and not just because he’s president of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.
“I love learning new things in a variety of different ways,” says Rhodes, “and I probably could have been happy doing many different things.” Like many people, he did not know where his schooling might lead.
He began with a double major in Spanish and English, went on for a masters degree in Spanish linguistics, and finally pursued a doctorate in higher and adult education. As a youth, Rhodes started off wanting to be a zoologist. Later, he thought of directing the Peace Corps. He has since had a variety of positions in adult and higher education, including serving as president of Riverland Community College in Austin, Minn.
At Reynolds, Rhodes oversees one of the state’s largest community colleges. The school has three campuses—urban, suburban and rural—and over 50 career options, including the second largest nursing program in the state. The school also has a partnership with several four-year universities and colleges, making transfer easy.
The community college system is “the on-ramp to higher education,” according to Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College system. A high percentage of students at Reynolds and other community colleges are the first generation in their families to attend college. Students who attend usually have a clear educational or career goal in mind.
“Seventy-five percent of our students are part-time,” says Rhodes. “They tend to be serious, they tend to be good students, and they generally have a clear purpose.”
There are two primary demographic bulges at the community college level: one averaging around 19, coming right out of high school, and the other in the mid-30s, with students coming back for a life or career change.
Older students enroll as well. Some of those over 50 come to retool for another career. Others attend for avocational reasons, using classes to create or deepen interests. For example, the horticulture program is popular among older students passionate about plants and wanting to learn more about gardening.
As someone who has worked with adult students for over 17 years, Rhodes believes in the power of education to change and enrich people. “Education has taught me to be unafraid to learn new things and try new things,” he says.
But equally important, Rhodes claims, is the effect new ideas have in shaping people. “The more education people have, the more experiences they have, the more likely they are to appreciate diversity in people, in foods, in culture…and in life.”
www.jsr.cc.va.us, (804) 371-3000
Traveling to Learn
Francis Church and his wife Bettie may have set the record in Richmond for taking the most Elderhostel trips—26 or 27, for those who are counting.
“You can’t stay closeted at home,” says Church, who recently turned 80. “I feel like all of life is a pilgrimage, and if the pilgrims are going to progress, they must keep on learning.”
Elderhostel is an educational organization that creates programs for people over age 55. Participants visit locations throughout the U.S. and across the globe. The trips are a blend of sightseeing, activities and lectures. Many have topical themes, such as history, technology, water sports or cooking.
Students often mix with the locals, which is especially meaningful in foreign countries. Church has found his conversations with residents of other countries to be among his best Elderhostel experiences.
As cellist in the Richmond Philharmonic, and as a former music critic and travel writer for the Richmond News Leader, Church is particularly drawn to trips that feature music. He compares his travels with his music: “The more you go, the more you want to go. It’s the same as if I’m playing music, I want to keep exploring new paths.” Not only is the exploration rewarding, but “it keeps you young.”
One of Church’s great pleasures in traveling with the organization is meeting his fellow students.
“The people who go on Elderhostel seem more open-minded, more open-thinking,” Church says. He thinks they compare favorably to other types of travelers. “I went on a cruise and people were subject to complaining. [But] there are no ugly Americans on Elderhostel.”
Before going on an Elderhostel trip, participants are given a reading list. This gives them the chance to understand the place they are visiting more deeply and get more out of the experience.
On some trips, participants study the natural world. Church thinks the mixture of seeing beautiful places and studying them is invaluable.
“It’s not only seeing the beauty of nature, but we’ve also got to be aware of it,” he says. This awareness often leads to a desire to protect the natural world. “When you visit a place like Costa Rica, you think about the effects of global warming. [The place] has a heritage you want to preserve.”
Studying while traveling has other benefits too. Church argues that those who stop learning new things become inflexible: “I think you can’t stop learning. As soon as you do, you get crusty and set in your ways. I think that’s fatal.”
Conversely, exploring art, music, nature and politics with one’s fellow students makes life rich. “Life is an adventure,” Church concludes, “and I want it to keep an adventure.”
www.elderhostel.org, (800) 454-5768
Growing Spiritually through Education
For Reverend Janie Walker, education has been anything but a straight and narrow path. Now in her late 50s, Walker is enrolled in the master’s of divinity program at Virginia Union University’s Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology. After the long road she has traveled, she will finally be graduating this spring. With 13 siblings, two children and six grandchildren, Walker is planning a huge extended family picnic to celebrate the well-earned event.
Walker has been in and out of college since the 1960s, taking courses intermittently while raising a family. Finally, in 2004, she realized it was time to return full-time. She had been practicing as a minister in several different churches, and she found it disturbing that the church members assumed she had degrees which she didn’t.
When she visited Dean John Kinney at Virginia Union to find out more, he immediately marched her right down the hall to get enrolled.
“I’m very grateful that Virginia Union has a special admissions program. I had more than enough credits to graduate with an undergraduate degree,” she says, and they took that into account in admitting her.
One of the biggest challenges for Walker has been stress of working full-time while attending classes on Friday and Saturday nights. She has been the associate pastor at Richmond Hill, an ecumenical fellowship center, for the last seven years and is the associate minister at Good Shepherd Baptist Church.
She has been more fortunate than some of her classmates because she has a flexible work schedule. “But many of my fellow students with full time jobs get really stressed out,” she says, recommending that those returning to school think more carefully than she did about how to manage their time
Despite the difficulties, she has found her school experiences to be enormously rewarding. In addition to the intellectual stimulation, “being in school has given me the opportunity to connect to people—people who have a vision for the community, for their churches, even for the entire nation, and that’s inspiring.”
It has also helped Walker to set new goals for herself: for example, she has become interested in changing from traditional ministry to intentional interim ministry. Through self-study and redesign, a congregation is guided by the interim pastor toward forming a new collective vision for their church’s future.
“Things have become a lot clearer for me, being in seminary,” Walker says. “I think life itself is all about growth. That includes spiritual growth, and growth doesn’t happen without education.”
But Walker doesn’t think that academic education is the only answer.
“There are so many things that life can teach us that we don’t learn in a traditional academic track,” she observes. “There are some things we learn simply by living.”
www.vuu.edu/Theology/home.htm, (804) 257-5717
The Richmond area offers a wealth of programs that cater to seniors. Four of the largest are listed below.
The Open University at the Shepherd’s Center “provides opportunities for intellectual stimulation and socialization.” Classes are held at three churches in Richmond’s Southside, Northside and West End. Eight-week sessions are held in the fall, winter and spring with well-qualified instructors, many of whom are faculty or retired faculty members from area colleges and universities.
Courses are offered in languages (French, Spanish, German), literature, history, art, music, religious studies, philosophy, writing, estate planning, bridge, antiques, wood carving, yoga, travelogues and health.
Tuition for unlimited courses is $25/semester for members and $45 for non-members. www.richmondshepcntr.org, (804) 355-7282.
St. Catherine’s School
The St. Catherine’s Seniors Summer program offers classes at six locations: St. Catherine’s School, Westminster Canterbury, The Hermitage, Lakewood Manor, Covenant Woods and The Shepherd’s Center.
Dozens of courses are offered in an array of subjects, from chess and political philosophy to popular science and creative writing. The flexible scheduling runs from May to August.
Tuition is $55 for one course, $80 for two or three courses and $105 for unlimited courses at any combination of sites.
www.st.catherines.org/summer/srsummer.php, (804) 288-2804
University of Richmond
UR’s School of Continuing Studies offers a variety of programs including the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The Osher Institute serves adults ages 50 and older “who are seeking opportunities for intellectual stimulation in a community of lifelong learners.”
Courses in the liberal arts are offered in the fall, spring, and summer semesters. They include undergraduate credit courses for audit, special interest mini-courses and lectures, community service projects, and performing arts events. State-wide trips and hikes round out the Institute’s offerings.
Membership allow participants to pay per class or attend unlimited classes. All members receive a UR One Card and e-mail address, parking pass, full student-status use of the library including online databases, and use of the recreation and wellness facilities. Course fees vary, from free brown bag lunches to $100 for full course audits. scs.richmond.edu/osher/index.htm, (804) 289-8133