By Emily Rosenberg
The Adventures in Lifelong Learning program proves that academic learning doesn’t end with the completion of a degree or diploma.
FSU, in collaboration with Framingham Public Library, provides an opportunity for those over the age of 60 to take a noncredit course in a variety of disciplines with Framingham State professors.
Examples of classes offered this spring include the study of Charles Dickens with FSU President Emeritus Helen Heinemen and Native American History to 1860 with History Professor Joseph Adelman, among others.
The program began in 2011 in person at the Framingham Public Library.
Anne Roberti, executive director of English Language programs, said during the Fall 2023 semester, over 200 people participated on Zoom. She said it switched over to Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic isolation period.
Similar to the undergraduate semester schedule, the program is offered in the fall, spring, and summer. Classes will run on Tuesday afternoons for four weeks in the spring.
The program is organized by a planning committee with the Framingham Public Library and it is funded by grants from the Framingham Cultural Council and the Marlborough Cultural Council. Roberti said the committee’s intention is to offer courses in a variety of disciplines each season. The committee also seeks out professors who are older in age to teach the courses.
Roberti said the program has high engagement. “I like that they are adult learners and there are adult learners that have the opportunity to be pursuing knowledge and getting educated in areas that they've always wanted but never had the opportunity to.”
Larry McKenna, an environment, society, and sustainability professor, has taught courses in the program for six years. This fall, he taught a course on understanding the total eclipse of 2024.
“In the first session, we kind of looked at the basics of the eclipse. In the second class, we looked at some of the ways that eclipses are used to study other sciences. In the third class, we looked at the role of eclipses in literature and music,” he said. In the fourth class, they reviewed how to view the eclipse.
McKenna said preparing for a course with the elderly population requires him to be on his “A game.”
“They all read the paper. They all have a lifetime of accrued experiences,” he added. A lot of participants also have master’s degrees and Ph.Ds.
“Some theories are limited only by your creativity and the insatiable curiosity of the people who take the courses, and I mean insatiable. These people are interested in everything and anything,” McKenna said.
McKenna said now the program is on Zoom, the opportunities for learners to join have expanded. For example, mobility issues are no longer a problem, and some people can join from longer distances if they choose to. However, like all remote events, it also restrains social engagement, which is not good for mental health.
“When the classes were in person, it was introduced obviously as a social get-together, which was very important for the participants and very important to me, because I'd like to see that social interaction. Of course, the disadvantage was that they had to get there on their own and some people of that age have mobility issues,” he said.
Regarding social interaction, McKenna noted a memorable piece of “advice” a fellow faculty member gave him about teaching a course before 11:15, which was lunch time - “don’t go over… nothing is going to get in their way of having lunch together.’”
McKenna said both of his parents join his lectures every week. “It’s pretty funny.”
David Smailes, a political science professor, has taught a number of courses for the program for three years.
Smailes lectures for the first 45 minutes of the class, and for the last portion he will open up the Zoom for questions, which always fills up the time. He said this time is almost like “a weekly current events test” for him because the discussion will move in areas that are relevant to the news.
He added the discussion time is truly a moment everyone in the class can learn from because people may offer their experiences, or they may ask thought-provoking questions he might have to research later and get back to the class the following week.
“They can take it wherever they want,” because the courses are not for credit. In a for-credit undergraduate course, if a student asks a question that is off-topic, a conversation only has so much breathing room until Smailes needs to move back on track to stay in-line with the syllabus.
On the other hand, because professors for the Lifelong Learning Program only have four classes to teach their course, Smailes said it can be tricky trying to plan what to include in the little time he has with the participants.
Something Smailes has noticed is how participants come to discussion about politics with an open mind. He said while discussing politics, he noticed participants are clearly critical of certain politicians’ actions, but none try to push ideologies.
He added it’s different from teaching undergraduates because some of the participants have actually experienced the history he teaches. For example, he was only 4 years old when JFK was assassinated so he does not remember it well, but many of his Lifelong Learning students remember it as young adults.
“When you're talking about historical events, people actually lived through those events,” he said. “[My undergraduate students] are going to be explaining Trump for the rest of [their] life.”
Lissa Bollettino, chair of the History department, has taught two courses - African American History to Reconstruction and African American History since Reconstruction. She started teaching courses because she was a lecturer for the Lifelong Learning Lecture Series at the library.
Bollettino said both courses were about the experience of people of African descent and then African Americans in the regions that ended up becoming the United States. “What constitutive role did they play in building our nation and transforming our nation?”
She said she loves how enthusiastic participants are, adding they have a wealth of diverse experiences that bring a lot to a discussion.
For example, she said in October she taught about the Civil Rights movement, which many of the participants were able to share their experiences of living through. She added teaching for the Lifelong Learning Program is also different because she doesn’t tend to teach undergraduate courses on Zoom, which allows her to lead more discussion and project-based classes.
However, she said as far as the population difference, her students for both her undergraduate courses and the Lifelong Learning classes are “both curious. They're both enthusiastic. They're just curious and enthusiastic in different ways.”
She added there is a stigma that some older people are “set in their ways and think of the world in a certain way.
“I have found that most of the people who've taken the courses with me have been very open minded and very excited to learn things.”
Bollettino said the program connects Framingham State with the wider community.
“I like breaking down barriers between the University and the city of Framingham and the community of Framingham and I would love to see even more options for the University and the University's faculty,” she said.
[Editor’s Note: Emily Rosenberg is a recent alumnus of Framingham State. Interviews for this article were completed in December 2023.]