Learning continuum

Area retirees have found more than a lifelong learning community in LIFE@Elon.

The opportunity to continue learning was at the top of Luigi and Linda Orlando’s list when they moved from the North Carolina coast to a retirement community near Elon. It was so important to the couple that they put their names on the LIFE@Elon waiting list before they made the move from Wilmington in 2019. “We would not be here if LIFE@Elon was not here,” Luigi Orlando says of the move they made six months ago. “That’s how important this is to us.”

When LIFE@Elon started in fall 2011, the goal was simple: create a lifelong learning community for retired faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the university. The initiative was spearheaded by Alison Morrison-Shetlar, then-dean of Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences. “We know there is a strong demand for engaging academic experiences by adults in our area who want to continue learning and expanding their horizons,” she said at the time. “Elon is a natural place for that to happen, a tremendous educational resource for our community.”

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Initially, the plan was to offer 12 sessions in the fall and 12 in the spring featuring lecturers presenting on topics chosen by participants through a curriculum committee. The weekly program would take place from 10 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays. Kathryn Bennett, program coordinator for LIFE@Elon, booked the meeting room in Johnston Hall and details about the program ran in the local newspaper. “My phone rang off the hook,” Bennett recalls. There were so many people in the surrounding community who wanted to participate and 200 signed up. Before the first class even started, a second session was added on Tuesday afternoons to accommodate the swell of interest.

The Orlandos spent the past 15 years engaged in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, so their expectations for LIFE@Elon, like that of other participants, were high. “Folks aren’t just sitting back, waiting for something to do in retirement,” says Karen Linehan Mroz, chair of the LIFE@Elon executive committee. “We have a number of folks from various fields and leadership positions, alumni and professors who all share a hunger for learning and have a busy life. It’s a membership that is very keen on staying up on the learning process.”

Lecture topics are wide-ranging and diverse, including nuclear technology in a modern society, the Christmas tree industry in North Carolina, the legacy of Louis Armstrong, modern pottery studios and social media’s influence on political discourse. Even when topics didn’t necessarily seem appealing on paper, the sessions have been worth attending, says Wendy McBride, who serves as secretary on the LIFE@Elon executive committee. “Every time there is a class that I’m not real excited about and I think that maybe I don’t want to go, it turns out to be very interesting.”

Folks aren’t just sitting back, waiting for something to do in retirement. … It’s a membership that is very keen on staying up on the learning process.

A recent lecture about female pilots from World War II really piqued McBride’s interest. Librarians from Elon’s Belk Library also shared books on the topic with the group. “The speaker talked about Night Witches and the Russian female pilots that flew at night,” says McBride, who is now reading a book on the subject. “It’s an amazing book, and I would never have picked that book up if it hadn’t been for the class.”

Wendy and husband Richard McBride, Elon’s chaplain emeritus, have been attending LIFE@Elon from the beginning. Richard chaired the first curriculum committee and John Sullivan, Elon’s Powell Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, chaired the executive board. “We leaned on a lot of Elon folks in that first year,” Richard says. “Over time, it’s been wonderful to see how community members have taken ownership of this.”

The program continues to grow. In 2013 the waiting list had grown so much that Wednesday morning class was added, followed by a Wednesday afternoon class in 2016. Last year membership grew to 500 and there are still people on a waiting list. “Originally, we were hoping for 50 back in 2011,” Bennett says. “The program grew by word of mouth. No additional advertising was ever done.”

In 2017, Peter Dahl, a participant since 2013 and past executive board member, launched a special interest group, otherwise known as a SIG, for those interested in wine tasting. “I went over to the Oak House and spoke with the owner, and we planned wine tastings for Friday nights when school was out of session,” Dahl says. About 60 people have since expressed interest in the group and now they do tastings four times a year. Other SIGs include a non-fiction book club, a traveling group named the “No Boat Yacht Club” and the newest group, a fiction book club.

Last spring, LIFE@Elon began a partnership with Collette Travel, an international family-owned travel business that specializes in educational partnerships for travel. Seven participants went on a trip to Switzerland, Austria and Bavaria in May 2019. Fourteen are signed up to go to Iceland in February. When participants book a trip with Collette Travel, a percentage of those proceeds go back to LIFE@Elon, which is self-sustaining. LIFE@Elon participants pay membership dues each academic year that pay for the entire program.

Burlington potters Curry and Sarah Wilkinson present during a LIFE@Elon session.

Over the years, members of the executive committee have attended lifelong learning conferences to learn about what other organizations are doing. They have held strategic planning meetings, always looking for opportunities for qualitative improvement. “This is a group that wants to be in top-quality programs that offer them the opportunity to continue to grow,” Mroz says.

LIFE@Elon members have access to Elon’s Belk Library. They attend cultural and sporting events and movies at Turner Theatre. They are some of Elon’s most generous donors and are often the first to volunteer to be research subjects for students studying physical therapy, exercise science or human service studies. “Some people love all the extra opportunities and want to do all of it,” says Joan Ruelle, dean of Belk Library and the provost’s liaison to LIFE@Elon. “Others just want to come to their morning or afternoon session once a week.”

Retired doctors, lawyers, preachers, authors and professors, to name a few, are among the LIFE@Elon members, many of whom have relocated to the area from other parts of the country. “I’ve never been involved in anything that had such an array of people who are so proficient and experts in so many different things,” says former executive chair Ken Mink. He has attended sessions with wife Marilyn for the past seven years. “The demographic slice is remarkable.”

While the learning component is key, participants also forge friendships, build connections and get to know the university and surrounding area as a result of the program. This past fall Elon 411 was added. Those sessions, held on Thursday mornings, provide interested LIFE@Elon members with information about Elon’s priorities and operations. “You definitely develop fellowship among the people who attend,” says Dahl, who spent his career living in Baltimore. “We have gotten to know quite a few people in town through the program. We are very grateful that Elon is committed to the community the way that it is.”

For more information about the program, contact Kathryn Bennett, LIFE@Elon program coordinator, at 336-278-7431 or visit elon.edu/lifeatelon.