Feature

Learning for a Lifetime

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Ringling College Lifelong Learning Academy

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly half of the U.S. adult population is enrolled in some type of lifelong learning opportunity. For this demographic, it’s not about learning skills to do better at a job — it’s more about the active pursuit of knowledge and experience to simply enjoy life more fully. Plus, engaging in lifelong learning has additional benefits, such as improving memory, keeping one’s mind active and increasing self-confidence. It’s also an inexpensive way to try something new.

It’s no surprise, then, that an organization like The Lifelong Learning Academy (LLA) has been extremely popular since it was created 18 years ago. Just this summer, however, it merged with Ringling College of Art and Design to become Ringling College Lifelong Learning Academy (RCLLA).

Director Janna Overstreet says the partnership makes a lot of sense. “We’ve grown by nearly 40% in the past three years, so we outgrew our existing space at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee,” she explains. “More than that, we had the desire to reach the boomer population — the younger older population of retirees — and we also needed to be able to have late afternoon and evening classes. We needed a partner who would embrace our mission and be on the same path we were.” Enter Ringling College, whose historic Sarasota High School building is earmarked to house Ringling’s Community Education programs in order to conveniently reach that same population. Overstreet says, “It just made sense to us. Instead of having another lifelong learning program in town, we take the best of what we do and what Ringling’s Continuing Studies and Special Programs (CSSP) does. It’s a win-win.”

Ringling College President Dr. Larry Thompson adds, “A clear leader in educational programming for adults and retirees, LLA brings to the table over 17 years of expertise serving thousands of students through its distinct learning programs. We look forward to working together to best meet the needs of this region’s adult learning population.”

Benefits & Class Offerings
One of the immediate benefits RCLLA will enjoy once renovations on the building are completed — that goal is fall 2017 — is that they’ll have the ability for 500 students to be in classrooms at any given hour. Right now, the maximum is 300. And room size is also an issue. Currently, their largest classrooms can only house 50 students. In the new space? They’ll have rooms that can accommodate 80 students.

“We have long waiting lists for many of our classes,” Overstreet says. “Our most popular ones are history, current/social events and literature. For example, when we offer our Great Books course that allows 24 students to be enrolled, registration opens at midnight and by 8 a.m., it’s always fully enrolled. Always. The same thing happens with our course on short stories where students read and discuss contemporary short fiction. We have a lot of high-interest courses in our catalog.”

One of the other benefits of the merger is that at every level, Ringling College is known for its first-rate art instruction. The old LLA certainly had a few studio art classes, but nothing compared to what their students can now get through CSSP. RCLLA offers every type of class from Film Noir to Advanced Meditation, from Exploring the World and Art of Vincent Van Gogh to How Jazz Works, from Master of the Dance to the Imperial Court of Iran to Florida’s Maritime Past. There are also plenty of practical, skill-based courses, too, such as iPhone for Beginners, Improving Your Relationships — Do You Hear What I’m Not Saying?, and Beginners’ Hebrew. Issues particular to an older demographic are equally well represented, with courses such as Preparing for Financial Challenges Due to Life Transitions, Evidence-Based Preventive Medicine, and Advance Care Planning Workshop.

One of the more interesting and most popular courses follows the work of the Supreme Court and their decisions. With the expert facilitation of two retired attorneys, the students review and discuss every upcoming Supreme Court case over their eight-week curriculum. After researching each case, they weigh the pros and cons and ultimately try to decide how the decision will play out. Over the summer, the instructors of the course write up lengthy documents on all the decisions made in court and how those fell in line with (or not!) what the class thought would happen.

RCLAA does more than just pure classroom experiences. They also take educational trips, such as last year’s trip to Cuba, or this coming fall’s 13-day trip to Israel led by Dr. Steven Derfler, an archaeologist, historian and veteran Israel traveler. They also have Einstein’s Circle — a place “where people gather to listen, to learn and to engage in an open and thoughtful exchange of ideas, opinions and information. It is a place to flex the brain, find gratification in being acknowledged for what you know and to be humbled by the knowledge of others.” Each Einstein’s Circle session has a different moderator who is experienced in the topic for that meeting. Like all RCLLA events, it’s quite affordable — $6 for general admission, $5 for RCLLA members.

This fall term, the Academy will launch a new program, “Academy Talks,” which will introduce new instructors to the larger RCLLA community of learners in the semester prior to teaching a course. Over the next few months, “Academy Talks” will be given by an expert on sea turtles, a former senior official of the national intelligence community, and a life coach who specializes in reinventing one’s life after change. The format for “Academy Talks” will be an interview followed by a question-and-answer period.

Volunteer & Donation Needs
Retirees primarily teach RCLLA courses, with many of them being former university professors, attorneys, doctors and businesspeople. Their real-world experience rivals that of many current university professors. What’s especially remarkable is that all 120 generous faculty members teach these courses only for — as Overstreet calls it — “gas money.”

Dr. Jerry Bladdick, Assistant Vice President and Director for Continuing Studies and Special Programs at Ringling College, says, “Our instructors are phenomenal. Doctors. Retired judges. Military personnel. CEOs. MBAs. PhDs. Former college presidents. You get a first-class experience in any of these courses.”

Indeed, giving and volunteering is at the heart of RCLLA. It’s a 501(c)3 non-profit, after all, with the goal of providing low-cost courses to our community. Overstreet says they only have four full-time employees, but as far as volunteers go? At least 130, she says, who do everything from staffing the registration desk to helping set up for parties to keeping databases up to date. “They do practically everything,” she says.

One of the big changes over the past few years is how classes are delivered. It used to be that almost all classes met once a week for either six or eight weeks. Now they have plenty of one-offs — single full-day or half-day sessions. They also have courses that meet twice a week for only two weeks.

“As a result of our increasingly flexible class options,” says Overstreet, “we’re beginning to see a more diverse group of people enjoying lifelong learning. Being flexible in when and how we deliver our offerings is really starting to help.” Part of that diversity isn’t just adding in new days and times for courses, but bringing in new course subjects that students want, such as classes on the iPad, life after retirement and contemporary authors.

Another thing they’ve done to ensure the courses are available to community members who want them is to start up a scholarship fund. Students in need simply contact the Director and explain their financial situation. On a case-by-case basis, help is given out as needed. Overstreet’s example of this assistance is about a woman who called to thank them for all the classes she’s taken in the past, but then explained that she’d run into financial hardship and wouldn’t be able to take any more. Overstreet told her about the program, which was able to cover the tuition for her as well as buy her the books she needed to take a course this summer.

“Not a week goes by that she hasn’t stopped in to thank us, saying how grateful she is for the opportunity to be in that class again,” says Overstreet. “It’s really such a little thing we’re doing for her, but to her, it’s making a huge difference in her life. Our courses are having an impact in her life every single week. That’s so rewarding.”

RCLLA can always use help, whether it’s time, money or expertise that can translate into them having a new faculty member. If any of these options appeal to you, send a note to info@thelifelonglearningacademy.com and share your interest. They’ll LOVE to hear from you.

“Curiosity never leaves you. Desire never leaves you,” says Overstreet about her students and lifelong learning in general. “The drive to know more and challenge yourself leads to an enriching life of self-fulfillment.”

For more information on Ringling College Lifelong Learning Academy, please visit thelifelonglearningacademy.com or call 941.309.5111.

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