Program caters to Vermont’s oldest learners

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(Host) As students around the state conclude the school year, another group is also finishing up their studies.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports on a program that caters to Vermont’s oldest learners.

(Professor) “Good day, salaam alaikum! How is everybody today?”

(Zind) Close your eyes and this could be any classroom. The chatter gradually subsides as students settle into their chairs as the professor begins his lecture. Open your eyes and you’ll see that these students are in their sixties, seventies, even eighties.

Some are taking notes and all are listening attentively as Javad Chaudhri, an adjunct faculty member at Keene State College, lectures on the history of Islam and the West.

(Chaudhri) “One of you asked me a question the last time about, ‘what did we give them? We took a lot from the East, philosophy, arts “

(Zind) These older learners are members of community-based program called the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The institute is funded by the national non-profit Bernard Osher Foundation.

Over the past three years Osher Institute programs offering semester long classes have started up in Brattleboro, Rutland, Springfield, Montpelier and Saint Johnsbury. Each is run by local volunteers and is open to anyone over fifty.

Osher students like Christina Gibbons don’t get graded and they don’t earn credits. But they take their classes seriously.

(Gibbons) “I think of it as a movement for adult learners. Those of us who don’t have to work anymore, but are still very thirsty for knowledge and stimulation and the wider world.”

(Zind) Gibbons has a lot of company at this crowded session. With the median age of Vermonters on the rise, interest in lifelong learning is increasing.

The University of Vermont offers guidelines and funds the programs from an annual 100 thousand dollars grant from the Osher Foundation.

Recent classes have ranged from the History of the Connecticut River Valley to the Geopolitics of Terrorism. No macram or line dancing here.

(Worthley) “That’s a good example of something that really wouldn’t be a fit.”

(Zind) Deborah Worthley directs the Osher Institute program from her office at UVM. Worthley says the local groups decide which classes to offer. But there are guidelines.

(Worthley) “This is a focus on intellectually engaging, college level programming.”

(Zind) Many courses are taught by active college professors, others are led by experts in the field being studied. Worthley says typically, Osher Institute students are in their 70s, retired, and college educated. They attend the classes for intellectual stimulation and contact with like-minded people.

Back in the Brattleboro classroom the discussion has turned to Sufi mysticism. Professor Chaudhri has invited a woman to the class to demonstrate the dance of the Sufi Dervishes. When it’s time for questions hands pop up around the room.

(Student) “Are all Sufis equal? Who rules the Sufis?”

(Zind) During a break in the two-hour session students dig into a tray full of spicy samosas provided by Professor Chaudhri. Christina Gibbons reflects on the importance of these sessions to her.

(Gibbons) “I’m never as fully alive as when I’m learning. I hope to learn until the day that I drop into the casket.”

(Zind) Roughly 500 Vermonters are taking part in Osher Institute classes around the state. They pay anywhere from thirty-five to fifty dollars per term. And the idea is spreading – new institute branches are being organized in Newport, St. Albans and the Stowe/Morrisville area.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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