NMC Offerings a ‘Gateway’ for 50-plus Learners

Tom Obrecht loves to learn.

The retired steel executive is among hundreds of older students who fill seats in extended education classes offered by Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) – informal, diverse lifelong learning opportunities targeting many ages, including 50-and-up working people and retirees and also younger students.

Obrecht, who has taken more than 60 classes through NMC’s Extended Educational Services (EES) and even learned to play piano, said EES “opens up more of the world” to understand and is a way to keep enjoying life.

“My best description of life is it’s a journey of learning,” said Obrecht, 67. “And the nice thing with the extended ed program, is that it kind of reminds me of a restaurant that has small plates, because you can get a small sample … [of a] variety of subjects.”

When the course catalog comes out, he said, “it just starts sparking interest in your mind. It makes you think about things you might have never thought about. And you get a chance to pursue that.”

For NMC’s 2017-2018 fiscal year, extended ed attendance by students ages 50 and up was about 4,740, with more than half of those seats filled in classes specifically targeting 50-plus learners.

It’s a demographic that wants to stay stimulated, said EES Director Laura Matchett, and is the biggest audience for EES offerings.

There is a new video on the EES website highlighting some of the appeal older learners see in classes, including those offered under the LIFE (Learning Is ForEver) Academy section of extended ed. The LIFE Academy is a portfolio of classes and events aimed at people 50 and up, often developed with the input of an advisory council and spanning a variety of subjects. Among them: nature, fitness and health, art, music, regional history, foreign policy and entertainment such as the ancient Chinese game of mahjongg and, new this fall, performing magic.

Other programming has included a class on how to “cut the cord” from traditional cable TV, and estate and elder law topics, said Alan Westerholm, chair of the LIFE Academy advisory council and a retired General Motors vehicle program model year manager.

Westerholm, 73, said the approximately 20-member council, virtually all retirees, serves as a sounding board to Matchett. The council meets every two to three months and offers input and suggestions on upcoming curriculum and events as well as “ideas for Laura and her team to develop” and thoughts on community members who might teach a class, Westerholm said.

Matchett said the council plays a valuable role.

“When we meet with them we brainstorm topics and gain a lot of information from that group. And so that drives a lot of our classes,” she said. “They help us bring resources to the process of creating classes. They know instructors, they know places, they know what’s of high interest. They just have a good pulse on the retirement community.”

Council members also are an integral part of a semi-annual event called Campus Day, a day of learning designed specifically for people 50 and up. The event is a series of 75-minute classes or presentations on some 40 topics, broken among three sessions. Attendees choose one offering in each session; topics have included nature, health and wellness, computer skills, international travel destinations, art and craftsmanship, food, strategies for finding part-time work, nursing homes and Medicare.

The council provides suggestions on program lineup, reviews attendees’ feedback on classes and helps throughout the day with check-in, presenters and other aspects of what has become a sellout event, attracting more than 400 people, Matchett said. The next Campus Day is Nov. 16.

Also scheduled throughout the academic year are LIFE Lunches. They’re opportunities to bring a sack lunch and learn about ideas, people, places, like an Oct. 26 program on Traverse City’s historic Oakwood Cemetery, led by cemetery sexton Branden Morgan. The lunches are usually well-attended and “a fun way for people to meet and greet and hear something interesting,” Matchett said.

Indeed, socialization pairs with learning as a benefit of EES offerings. Fifty-two-year-old student Sheila Wojciechowski, who retired in 2011 after a career in sales, said classes are “a great way to meet people, both students and the instructors. The instructors are well-informed experts, and the people who are in the classes are there for the same reasons I am there … they’re interested in the topic, they’re interested in getting out in the community. It provides group interaction.”

Wojciechowski has taken classes in areas including cooking, fitness, writing and art.

“The more classes I take, the more I’m interested in continuing in the program,” she said.

She said classes can be a way to test out new hobbies without significant investment, and she sees NMC as being “very attentive to what the 50-and-over group of us are looking for.” For example, classes geared toward nature and the region help people who have moved to the area learn about it, she said.

Such offerings include courses that can count toward obtaining an extended education Northern Naturalist Certificate. The designated courses in which students explore the natural environment through classroom and hands-on encounters are offered each semester, and the certificate can lead to other experiences.

“While many participants sign up to learn more about our local environment, many have found that they enjoyed the content so much that they began volunteering at local environmental organizations,” said EES Program Manager Bill Queen, in comments provided for this story.

The certificate program was one that appealed to Obrecht, who with his wife moved to Traverse City from the Detroit area after retiring in 2011. He said the program “was really interesting stuff,” with classes touching on areas such as water, trees, insects and wilderness.

“It’s given me an opportunity to get more exposed to what the area has to offer,” Obrecht said.

That included learning about Sleeping Bear Dunes Natural Lakeshore and in turn making a connection that led to becoming a blacksmith volunteer in the park’s blacksmith shop in historic Glen Haven.

In crafting classes for older adults, EES seeks to make the courses as “hands-on” as possible, Queen said.

“Teaching adults differs in several ways. First and foremost our students are choosing topics they need or are interested in,” he said. “This fact brings attentiveness and experience to the classroom.”

The instructor matters, too, he said, in that they become “facilitators of learning rather than deliverers of content.”

“Discussion and content are then delivered dynamically utilizing skills, knowledge and understanding of the students as well as the instructor in the class,” he said. “This factor allows for greater depth of learning for all … ”

Longtime instructor Elizabeth (Betsy) Abeel said both she and students see rewards. An award-winning batik artist, Abeel, 67, has been an EES instructor since the early 1990s and her class – “Learn to see as an artist sees, and you can draw as an artist draws” – has been offered nonstop, three times a year.

“To think that I can still stand up in front of a new group of people and feel as excited to be there as I did way back when, that to me is just amazing,” she said. “I’ll probably offer this class until no one shows up. And it is because I get to be witness to a wonderful, literally eye-opening experience for most people.”

She said the class, which is “geared to people that never in their wildest dreams thought they could learn how to draw or do anything with the arts,” attracts some teenagers and working people but primarily retirees, particularly those who “are just starting out in retirement and trying to figure out, what do I do with myself. For some it’s just been a delayed interest, for a great many, they are only there because of the title of the class. It taps into making people feel comfortable.”

Abeel’s class is one of 247 offerings this fall in EES, which over the year has programming that draws students ranging from three-to-17-year-olds at College for Kids, to LIFE Academy learners stretching to age 97. Abeel said NMC’s extended ed provides “something for everyone” and is an asset to the community.

“If this wasn’t here, what would people do. How would they find each other, how would they explore things that they’ve never had time to think about before,” she said. “When you’re working, you’re pretty focused. This is a gateway into the next phase of your life.”

Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.