Life-long learning

🕔Dec 15, 2005

“A day where you haven’t learned something new is a day wasted,” says Carman Graf, who is surfing the web today at the Smithers campus of Northwest Community College. Graf, 69, is well known as the former mayor of Smithers, and he and his wife Joan are among a dozen seniors enrolled in a NWCC computer class which is offering them valuable tips on how to find their way around the Internet.

It’s the first college course Graf has enrolled in, but it certainly won’t be the last. He and Joan are part of the driving force behind a new educational initiative in northern B.C.: Eldercollege.

No, Eldercollege is not an oxymoron, even though college is usually associated with people at the beginning of their careers rather than those at retirement age. The concept originated in the Lower Mainland but is catching on around the province.

Eldercollege is a member-driven organization that began in B.C. at Capilano College. Its participants design and offer educational opportunities for seniors, usually in courses offered on college campuses. Volunteer committees design curricula and events. Courses are frequently taught by seniors from private, public and academic sectors. They tend to emphasize maximum accessibility: short classes, a welcoming, informal atmosphere, and a stimulating social environment. It’s understood that senior students can drop in as their other commitments and health issues allow, and in most cases, there are no pre-requisites, no exams, no papers to write and no certificates to carry away at the end. All education levels are welcomed, and life experience is celebrated as a form of education.

These conditions suit Carman Graf just fine. He’s always placed high value on education, but had to quit school in his teens to work on a farm. Until now, marriage, raising a family, a long career as a successful business owner, and several terms in political office tended to crowd out his dream of higher education. In addition to the computer course, Graf is preparing to write his exam for his General Education Diploma. Today, he says, education is about his personal fulfillment.

The Grafs are among some 50 seniors who are launching Eldercollege in Smithers. They’re already looking forward to two courses to be offered at NWCC before Christmas, “Email for Scaredy Cats” and a current affairs course. They’ll also consider courses which Eldercollege hopes to offer in early 2006: Spanish, creative writing and gardening courses.

Eldercollege is also getting off the ground at NWCC’s Hazelton campus, where about 20 seniors have been organizing since August 2005. Continuing ed co-ordinator Leah Marshall scans the impressive need-to-know list brainstormed by the group in exploratory meetings.

“Let’s see: basket-weaving, carpentry, small engine repair, healthy living, quilting, social and justice issues, local issues, travel destinations, practical home fix-it skills, leadership, First Nations arts and politics,” says Marshall. “Also comedy, Brazilian embroidery, the aging process and self-care, square dancing, line dancing, knitting, crocheting, tai chi, bocci, yoga…. and a course that would offer a survivors’ kit, to help people who lose a spouse: what to expect, and how to cope.”

First on the list for Hazelton is a free, basic computers course which will hopefully be offered before Christmas. January 2006 courses remain to be confirmed.

Alice Maitland, campus manager of NWCC’s Hazelton campus, beams when she talks about Eldercollege. “They’re really gung-ho out here,” she says.

“It’s about elders taking charge of their education,” she adds, noting that she always wants to laugh when she uses the term “elder.” At 72, Maitland finds most local Eldercollege candidates a few years her junior.

In the short term, courses planned for the Smithers campus will be free, thanks to volunteer instructors. Hazelton-area courses will likely run at low cost, on a cost-recovery basis. Such variances show how Eldercollege financial and organizational models vary from community to community, and are completely determined by local seniors. In some communities, bursaries are available for interested participants.

“It’s not a money-maker for NWCC,” says Margo Vandertouw. She is the director of continuing ed for NWCC, and is described by Maitland as a “going concern who gets the job done.” It was Vandertouw who decided to pilot the Eldercollege concept in Smithers and Hazelton, and planted the seeds by bringing Lynn Jest, founder of Eldercollege in B.C., to these communities for well-attended introductory information meetings in August.

However, notes Vandertouw, Eldercollege clearly derives economic benefits by associating with existing colleges: it can piggyback on existing marketing infrastructure, such as college websites and program guides, and physical infrastructure, such as classrooms and equipment.

She emphasizes that it is area seniors, not NWCC, who determine educational priorities. “The college just facilitates the process, which is really a reflection of community interests.”

Nevertheless, campuses are expected to benefit from Eldercollege as well. “I’m so excited about Eldercollege,” says Andrea Kosalko, continuing education co-ordinator at the Smithers campus. “It’s infectious having positive and enthusiastic older learners around the college!”

Judy Morgan, a retired school teacher who chairs the steering committee for Eldercollege in Smithers, believes the benefits of Eldercollege extend well beyond the campus atmosphere.

“It’s a calling card for the community,” she explains, noting that communities with a rich array of opportunities for seniors make it more attractive to in-migrants.

Maitland couldn’t agree more. She predicts Eldercollege could grow into an organization that organizes and hosts tours for seniors from other communities to area attractions, like the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed—possibly as a fundraiser. She’s also excited that Eldercollege could present opportunities to bring seniors and younger students together for on-campus activities, and that it’s already bringing together seniors from a wide range of cultural and educational backgrounds—including a strong First Nations component. A recent seminar offered about Gitxsan petroglyphs on the Babine was packed, she reports.

“We have a really great mix of people,” she says. “This [mixing of people] builds the campus community, and builds community generally.”

For more information about Eldercollege, call Northwest Community College in Smithers at 847.4461, or Hazelton at 842.5291.

Education over 50—why not?

Up until six years ago, 56-year-old Jose Coosemans of Terrace shied away from computers. But this music teacher of 32 years and active community volunteer pushed himself through that, and has just obtained his Masters of Education through UNBC’s Terrace campus. He’s currently studying the Nisga’a language and intends to complete his PhD before retiring. Coosemans points out that seniors, as much as ever, have a critical role to play in community wellness. “For seniors to be effective role models, counsellors, it’s important for us to keep educating ourselves,” he says. “My line these days is, ‘Be not afraid.’”

After taking courses in evenings and on weekends throughout her adult life—and in between several terms as councillor, then mayor of Hazelton—Alice Maitland of Hazelton completed her Masters in Education Administration seven years ago at age 65. To her, the benefits of lifelong learning are “huge: It keeps people younger…. It makes you feel like nothing is impossible. It’s sure to lift your life.”

Pamela den Ouden of Fort St. John received an Interdisciplinary Master of Arts degree from the University of Northern British Columbia in 2004—at age 54. This was after having earned a Bachelor of Arts with a major in English from BC’s Open University in 1998, and a Certificate in Teaching English as a Second Language from the University of Saskatchewan. Many of her courses were taken by correspondence while working full-time. “I was usually the oldest person in the class, even counting the instructor,” she remembers. Den Ouden clearly loves going to school. “Being in the classroom gives me opportunity to learn how to interact with others, how to come to new understandings—in short, how to be in the world. I try to learn something about myself with every course I take.” Now teaching English and Women’s Studies at Northern Lights College, a job she loves, den Ouden offers this advice to anyone thinking about challenging themselves with education later in life: “Just start! Start with something you’re interested in. That’s what I did. I took one course. Then another. And another. I found out I could do it!”

© Larissa Ardis 2005