Tom Eblen: 'Curiosity never retires' at UK's lifelong learning program

Older students can fuel their curiosity

Herald-Leader columnistAugust 8, 2012 

Tom Eblen

  • Osher Lifelong Learning Institute's fall open house and course registration

    When: 1-3:30 p.m., Thursday

    Where: Tates Creek Christian Church, 3150 Tates Creek Road

    More information: (859) 257-2656 or www.mc.uky.edu/aging/index.html

Many young people can't wait to get out of school and get on with "real" life. But after several decades of careers and families, many older people can't wait to get back into the classroom.

That's because they have discovered that lifelong learning contributes to better mental and physical health and simply makes their lives more interesting.

You will find many of these people at Tates Creek Christian Church on Thursday, signing up for fall courses and activities at the University of Kentucky's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

With 1,300 active participants, the institute is the largest component of the university's educational-enrichment programs for Kentuckians 50 and older.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of UK Board of Trustees' 1962 decision to create a Council on Aging to explore then-President Herman Donovan's interest in serving senior citizens.

Two years later, UK created the most famous piece of that effort: the Donovan Fellowship program, which allows Kentuckians 65 and older to take university classes tuition-free. Time magazine profiled the Donovan Scholars in 1966, calling it the first program of its kind in the nation.

UK's lifelong learning programs expanded over the years, and they have grown dramatically since 2007. That was when the Bernard Osher Foundation of San Francisco provided UK with significant funding to create the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, one of 117 such programs around the country.

The UK institute's motto: Where curiosity never retires.

For a $25 annual fee, institute members get admission to seminars, day trips and other activities. They also can enroll in non-credit courses, most of which cost $15 each. The courses meet from six to eight weeks, mostly on weekdays and some Saturdays, at churches and libraries all over Lexington. Some courses also are offered in Morehead and Somerset.

The program is open to people 50 and older, "although we don't card anybody," said Susan Bottom, chairwoman of the program's advisory board.

"I love to learn and I love people who are curious and interested and energetic," said Bottom, 64, who moved to Lexington to be near her nieces and nephews after a career in military logistics.

"These are the most amazing people," she said of the institute's students and instructors. "They're interested in everything, and they bring their life experiences and knowledge with them. Just to be with them is so much fun."

People who join the program can attend the Thursday afternoon forum sessions, each with a different speaker. This fall's speakers will share their expertise on everything from Chinese opera and the cities of Siberia to the role of the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II.

This fall's 39 course offerings range from computers to culture, plus history, literature, languages, performing and visual arts, and health and wellness. Subjects include digital photography, line dancing, painting, acting, advanced Spanish conversation and much more.

Instructors come from a variety of backgrounds, and their courses reflect their hobbies as well as their current or former vocations. For example, Tom Miller, a retired UK psychology professor, is teaching a class this fall in model railroading.

"We bring expertise but mostly our passion to the classroom, because we're teaching our peers," Bottom said. "It's about staying young, staying connected, staying aware. It's about the enjoyment of new things and new thoughts. No papers, no tests. Just learning."

Bottom has taken courses in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights and in Chinese culture, but now she spends most of her time teaching. Her degrees were in journalism and public affairs, but her passion is history.

This fall, Bottom is teaching a history course: Napoleon and Wellington on the Road to Waterloo. Among the students who already have registered for the course is Anne Purple, who has been active in UK senior education programs since she moved to Lexington in 1990. At age 89, Purple has four children, 12 grandchildren and eight great-grand children. But she still makes time to exercise her mind and body.

"If you don't use it, you lose it," Purple said. "I remember a history teacher in college say, 'Don't ever stop learning!' There are just too many facets of life to not keep your mind active any way you can."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: Tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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