Chance to learn long into senior years

Notre Dame: The Renaissance Institute offers classes as well as camaraderie for students age 50 and older.

November 30, 2003|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

No one jokes about "perpetual students" at the Renaissance Institute at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. The whole point for these students - all of them age 50 and older - is to be lifelong learners.

They prefer the phrase "50 years old and better." As a learning cooperative, the members teach and take classes on such topics as the fiction of Joseph Conrad, history of ancient China, archaeology of Egypt, the anthropology of violence and warfare, and the art of PowerPoint presentations. That's just a sampling of the spring offerings.

"The members make a decision on what they want to teach, and this is the result," said Vera Newton, director of the program.

The institute had its beginning 15 years ago, when the college's then-president, Sister Kathleen Feeley, called together a group to explore starting a program for older members of the community. A year later, the Renaissance Institute opened its doors to about 200 enrollees. Many of the current members joined that first year.

"When I come here, I don't see a group of old people," said member and past President Judith Westerhout. Instead, she said, she sees "vibrant people" who have a limitless desire for learning and interaction.

Many colleges, such as the Johns Hopkins University and Towson University, have what is widely called "lifelong learning" programs.

The Peabody Institute and Baltimore International College have Elderhostel programs in which seniors from other parts of the country travel to a college to live and study on campus for a week or two.

"We'd like to bring an Elderhostel program to this college," said Larry Bur of Baltimore, a Renaissance member who edits the annual literary and art magazine Reflections, which publishes the works of Renaissance members and reproduces their artwork.

Newton, who retired as a principal and administrator in the Baltimore public school system, was hired as the institute's director last spring. She calls herself the "make-it-happen" person, but all decisions are made by an elected council of the 325 institute members.

Gaining admission is tough - there's a waiting list of 200 names and an attrition rate of only about 5 percent per year. Most members re-enroll each year. For their annual dues of $310, they can take as many courses as they have time for as well as audit one regular Notre Dame course per semester.

Most of the institute members take full advantage of this benefit, Newton said. The schedules they choose are like those of full-time college students. Most attend about 10 hours of Renaissance classes a week Tuesdays and Thursdays, not counting whatever college course they audit.

There is one way to move up to the top of the waiting list, Newton said, and that is to offer to "coordinate" - their word for teach - a course. With only a few exceptions, all courses are taught by members of the institute. In some cases, the coordinators are experts in the field. All courses have to be approved by the council.

Westerhout, a native of Ireland, retired from the Jemicy School in Owings Mills, which specializes in teaching dyslexic children. She coordinated a course on the history and impact of colonialism.

"I'm still teaching but in a totally different way," she said.

Courses change every semester - and the favorites can be surprising. The institute has, from time to time, offered a course on grief, or death and dying, but such topics don't draw many takers. Bioethics, on the other hand, was wildly popular. Current-events courses - in which guest speakers have included top gubernatorial aides and former mayors - draw an average of 90 enrollees each semester.

The writers' workshop draws students who sign up repeatedly as they hone their skills. Many did a form of writing in their jobs that was more technical or specific and now write creatively.

"As a judge, your writing shouldn't be too creative," said Mary Ellen T. Rhinehardt, 74, of Baltimore, who retired in 1999 as administrative judge of the Baltimore District Court. She writes poetry in the workshop.

Fellow workshop writer Gwen Gibson, 80, of Perry Hall, a retired art therapist, wrote for professional journals and still does. Not many of the members are completely retired, although to take the daytime courses, they can't really be working full time.

Darryl Croxton, 55, a professional actor who lives in Mount Vernon, teaches a course on acting. The members who take it do a performance at the end.

He encourages the participants to focus on the central philosophy of acting, which jibes with the philosophy of the Renaissance Institute curriculum. The common theme is reaching outside one's world.

"It's really very good therapy" in more ways than one, Croxton said. "A number of my students insist upon learning and memorizing the text."

That kind of brain exercise, he said, is just what medical experts believe keeps seniors' minds working at full speed.

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