Seniors Teaching Fellow Seniors

Senior colleges allow you to teach in your area of expertise, and then sit back and take a class yourself.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the February 2009 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here.

Bill Guker spent 35 years in Asia, first as a CIA officer and later as a corporate executive. Today, Guker, 82, shares his knowledge of ancient and modern China with other older adults, as an instructor at the Senior Studies Institute in Portland, Ore.

Guker's students have signed up for four two-hour sessions. Guker doesn't get paid. And when he's not teaching, he becomes a student himself, attending classes offered by some of the 300 members of the institute, on subjects ranging from play reading to the history of whiskey in America.

"Everyone has their own interests, things they have done during their lives," says Guker. "We have people giving talks on every topic from A to Z. It's a very lively group." He belongs to the institute with his wife, Rachel.

The Portland group is one of 400 senior institutes, colleges and universities that have sprung up nationwide. They are designed for individuals 55 and older who want to pursue academic interests without attending community colleges or formal universities.

The senior-oriented institutions have different models, but they all rely on the same principle: seniors teaching seniors. The instructors teach classes in their areas of expertise. They also take classes from their students, who may have specialized knowledge of their own. No formal degrees are required to teach, and no formal degrees, academic credit or grades are awarded to students.

The schools fall into one of three categories. In the first, students pay an annual fee to belong to a learning group and can take as many courses as they want for free. The teachers generally come from the group but are not paid.

In the second category, students may pay a nominal fee to join and then a small amount for each course. Teachers generally are not paid, but occasionally get an honorarium. Many are affiliated with a local community college. The third type is usually associated with a university. Teachers are paid a small stipend, and students pay for each course.

At Portland's Senior Studies Institute, members pay an annual $30 fee, which covers as many courses as they want to take. The teachers don't get paid.

Billy Joe McFarland, a retired journalist and public relations executive, says the institute is affiliated with Portland Community College, which provides meeting space and publicity. But the college doesn't run the program. Members choose and teach the courses. McFarland says he tells college administrators that "we've probably got more PhDs in Senior Studies than you have on faculty. We run our own show, and we've got the brain power to do it."

McFarland conducts the current affairs class. Occasionally he will bring in a guest speaker. But the institute doesn't use professors from the community college.

Kali Lightfoot, executive director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine, says many seniors who pursue studies have been interested in learning since very early in life. "When people retire, they start thinking about taking classes," she says. "If you have had a college education, you are more inclined to take courses."

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The Osher institute at the University of Southern Maine serves as the umbrella organization that advises and organizes about 120 similar groups across the U.S. You can find an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute near you by visiting the national Web site at Or check for other programs at local senior centers, community colleges or libraries.

Lightfoot says the Osher program in Southern Maine has many retired engineers as members. "It's because they have had to keep up through their careers and have gotten into the habit of going to school," she says. Courses at her institute range from women singing the blues to cosmology.

Start Your Own College

If you want, you can create your own senior college. Jack Thompson, a retired history professor from Indiana University, had spent summers in Maine where his wife's family owned property. In retirement, he moved to the state. He discovered a senior college program in Portland, Maine, but nothing closer to his vintage farmhouse about 35 miles away in coastal Phippsburg. So he started one.

Like Thompson, many members of Midcoast Senior College in Bath retired to Maine from elsewhere and were looking for intellectual stimulation. Some instructors started as students and still take classes as well as teach. The $50 course fees, he says, include an end-of-the-year luncheon. Classes meet for two hours a week for eight weeks.

Thompson teaches history, his specialty, but also takes courses, including those in detective fiction and social science theory. "For the teacher, it's wonderful because all the people who are there want to learn something about the subject," he said. "They come for the class, and they come back for the friendships."

That's the case for Betty Reed, 84, a retired shipyard worker who was a Rosie the Riveter type in World War II. She eventually worked in California for McDonnell Douglas before she retired and returned to Oregon.

Friends persuaded Reed to take part in the Senior Studies Institute in Portland, and she was hooked. "I'm not a social person," she says. But during her weekly current-events class, she says, "You can push other people's buttons. You can complain, you can agree, you can disagree, but you have a voice."

Professor E. Michael Brady, a research fellow at the University of Southern Maine, says older learners are different from traditional college students because they often challenge the teacher's viewpoint or even their facts. Some students may have lived through the era being discussed. Or they may have researched the issue enough to have a different perspective.

Brady took a survey of 480 senior-college participants a couple of years ago. While many said the social interaction was one reason they got involved, Brady says that "every single person claimed that the key motivating factor was intellectual growth."

Usually the colleges use community-college space for their classes, but not always. Generally, they are only tangentially associated with community colleges.

An exception is James Madison University's Lifelong Learning Institute. This senior college is an outreach program of the social work department. Some of its teachers are retired university faculty. Others come from community colleges or smaller four-year colleges in the Harrisonburg, Va., area.

The program occasionally mixes JMU undergraduates with the older students. The intermingling of the two types of students is fascinating, says Nancy Owens, director of the JMU institute. "I think for the traditionally aged college student, the stereotype of older adults is smashed," Owens says. "When they get around 70- and 80-year-old people who are really active and cognizant of current events, it really does blow them away sometimes."

The best classes are sometimes the ones in which the unexpected happens. Professor Bill Blair, who headed the education department at James Madison University before retirement, now teaches the history of Harrisonburg and the Shenandoah Valley at the Lifelong Learning Institute.

One day, he was teaching about the early settlement of the Shenandoah Valley and a student remarked that her ancestors settled the area in 1789, as did Blair's. "She had the original land grant given by the King of England," he says. "She was very generous to give them to me because my grandson bears the name of the person who first settled there."

Perhaps someday Blair will pass the documents along to grandson Alexander Blair, now 8 years old, so he can learn about his forebears. And maybe someday, Alexander will also carry on the tradition of seniors teaching seniors.

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