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College of Continuing Education News

New Worlds: LearningLife then and now

New Worlds.jpg

While the College's history reaches back to 1913, one of its current program areas - LearningLife - goes back "only" a modest five decades. Oh, but what a perfect decade it was for the College to start a movement. And, a movement it was, a movement to give lifelong learners the chance to see the world from new perspectives, follow their passions, or create for themselves a new beginning. Over the years, a changing slate of offerings emerged, each specifically designed to meet the needs of the time.

Continuing Education for Women and the Compleat Scholar Program

In 1960, the women's rights movement was just beginning. It would be three years before Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique made the case that women's talents were needed in the workforce. But, it was at this early stage that the University of Minnesota was already working toward giving women who had been away from school awhile access to education and the confidence and opportunities that followed.

The Minnesota Plan for the Continuing Education of Women (CEW)* began with a few liberal arts seminars under the title New Worlds of Knowledge. By its 15-year anniversary, it had grown to a department offering 150 to 200 courses (both for credit and noncredit) and was registering over 3,000 students a year. For some, a richer perspective on life and the excitement of getting to know other "educational junkies" (as one participant called it) were the rewards. For others, degrees and more rewarding jobs followed suit.

U of M Board of Regents current chair Linda Cohen was one of those who found the program beneficial. During the program's 25th anniversary, she wrote that after eight years out of school and three young children..."I discovered a course called New Worlds of Knowledge...It was intellectual stimulation par excellence, with camaraderie of women of all ages - 25 to 65."

Some CEW participants found themselves quickly at the head of the class. "The summer I took a psychology lab," remembered the late Edith Mucke in 1985, "I surprised myself by being very good at the math material. A pale young man who worked as a night clerk at the Sheraton used to call me between 11 o'clock and midnight, worrying if he had the same answers." Mucke later went on to serve as director of CEW from 1974 to 1983.

In 1961, co-founder Virginia Senders, described the difference the program was making to another of the early participants: "Elizabeth Hunter, 43 years old and the mother of six children, had long ago stopped thinking of herself as a chemist. Her honors degree...was now 22 years old, and 18 years of domesticity separated her present life from her last active work in the scientific field. Yet, with her youngest child approaching school age, she was beginning to ask herself, 'What now?' Mrs. Hunter did not yet know the answer to her question, but she did know what her next step would be. She would start by enrolling in our program."

The program, which changed over the years to meet the evolving needs of its audience, was a pioneer. "The first five years of the Minnesota Plan brought hundreds of inquiries from educators and persons interested in education located around the United States, and indeed, the world," explained Vera Schletzer, who became co-director with Elizabeth Cless when Senders took a position on the East Coast. "As pioneer and model, the Minnesota Plan catalyzed a national, if not worldwide, movement in women's higher education."

Eventually, as societal norms changed, it became more widely accepted for women to return to school. So, the program changed again. Its credit courses continued until 1998. Its noncredit courses - specializing in liberal education, especially art and literature, and business and professional courses - merged with those of the U's Informal Courses unit - specializing in natural history and social sciences - to become the Compleat Scholar program.

The legacy and pioneering spirit of CEW and the Compleat Scholar program continue today in LearningLife, a portfolio for intellectually curious adults. With formats ranging from single-evening discussions, to Saturday morning seminars for busy working adults, to full-day and multi-session short courses, LearningLife is constantly evolving to meet the needs of its ever-expanding audience.

Split Rock Arts Program

In 1983, the Split Rock Arts Program began, perched on a hill overlooking Lake Superior. Co-founder Andrea Gilats describes the summer retreat for working and aspiring creative writers and artists as "the right thing at the right time." During the years that followed, Split Rock became a popular destination. Each summer it attracted an energetic group of faculty and participants from throughout the U.S., Canada, and the world. Master artists loved the opportunity to share their passion with attendees interested in their art forms. Participants honed their skills at creative writing, visual art, and design.

The program's weeklong format (on the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and then later Twin Cities campuses) was, according to Gilats, "born in another economic era. It was a time when you could pay tuition, rent apartments, and live a week on campus without breaking the bank."

"Since the program discontinued in 2011, there are few days when I don't invoke and celebrate the spirit of Split Rock: its long history, unique interdisciplinary mission, and richly creative people who, through their participation, were the program's center - its beating heart," said Anastasia Faunce, who succeeded Gilats as the program's director and is now a program director for LearningLife.

Great Conversations and Headliners

Fast forwarding another 20 years, College planners imagined being able to listen in as two leading thinkers on a topic covered its history and debated its future. These experts would be culled not "just" from our own academically impressive backyard, but from around the world.

Shortly after she arrived in 2000, Personal Enrichment Programs director Margy Ligon was tapped to create a high-profile series inviting Minnesotans back to their University to join faculty luminaries and the guest of their choosing. That, she did.

From its first pairing in 2002 between then University president Mark Yudof and his former law student, political pundit Paul Begala, the Great Conversations series featured the firsthand perspectives of global leaders such as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hirsh, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and human rights activist Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland. The program also attracted the attention of others who sought to replicate its unique ability to engage lifelong learners. Soon "Great Conversations" were happening around the country at such institutions as the University of Chicago.

At a particularly memorable evening in February of 2003, CCE conferred its first honorary degree on Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

"It's been the ability to tell Minnesotans about the University's role in such historic events, as the fight against apartheid in South Africa, that made it such a privilege to produce these truly great conversations," explained Ligon.

A companion program, Headliners, soon spun off from Great Conversations. The monthly forum offers engaged citizens the opportunity to delve into the national news with University faculty whose expertise illuminates stories as they appear in the headlines. "By employing advanced communications strategies and social media," said Ligon, "we're able to be immediately responsive to the interests of our audiences. The resulting public discussions are stimulating."

Between Great Conversations and Headliners, over the years approximately 35,000 Minnesotans have participated in timely discussions that have enlightened, challenged, and even inspired community action.

Encore Transitions

In 2006, U of M sociology professor Phyllis Moen invited Marc Freedman, founder of Civic Ventures, to join her onstage for a Great Conversation about the social forces shaping retirement. The event had a profound impact on Andrea Gilats, still director at the time of Split Rock Arts Program. In 2009, Gilats brought Freedman back to the U for a LearningLife Encore Fest. She describes it as a "catalytic" event where she met Bill Spinelli, M.D. Eventually, the two would co-develop Encore Transitions.

Again, the time was right for a new program to emerge. "Two-to-three years ago the oldest boomers started to hit retirement age. The bulge is not there yet," explains Gilats. "Of those ages 65 or older, something like 30 percent of them still say some income still comes from paid work. The new retirement doesn't look like Sun City."

But, what does it look like? Just like Elizabeth Hunter struggled with how to move to the next phase of her life 50 years ago and a College program - Continuing Education for Women (CEW) - bridged the gap, so, too, today a new program, Encore Transitions is helping Minnesotans prepare for a new stage of life.

Encore Transitions is an annual series, offered each fall, of daylong workshops designed to help employees transition to post-career life.

"People have two-to-three decades of healthy living after retirement," explains Gilats. "They wonder: 'What will I do with my time and how will my life continue to matter?' CCE has a role to play in healthy aging. People want to continue to learn, grow, and contribute."

Just as CEW caught the eye of author Betty Friedan then created intense interest in the model from other educators, so, too, is Encore Transitions. In Freedman's new book The Big Shift, he urges that society needs new paradigms since we need all our people power deployed, including retirees. He mentions the College's Encore Transitions as a pioneering program. Meanwhile, Gilats and Dean Mary Nichols have been tapped to share their insight on how to replicate the model elsewhere.

It is because the model is working, as explained by one recent series "alum": "I'm more confident that I can control my own destiny and define my own path."

Knowledge opens new worlds.


* CEW history based on Donald Opitz's Three Generations in the Life of the Minnesota Women's Center - A History 1960-2000 and Continuing Education for Women 1960-1985 - Stories from the Early Years.

This spring, LearningLife offers The Discovery Forum. This summer, explore A Century of Ideas.

Discovery Forum
A series of provocative high-profile Discovery Forum conversations, presented by the Star Tribune, will start downtown and continue at follow-up Saturday morning campus seminars with prominent Twin Cities experts to explore the issues raised.

Inaugural Pair: Discovering the State of the Nation

Tuesday, May 8, 7 p.m., Orchestra Hall: National guests Frank Rich (New York magazine), Tina Brown (Newsweek magazine and The Daily Beast), and political satirist P.J. O'Rourke join Star Tribune moderator John Rash to discuss the state of the nation.

Saturday, May 19, 9-11 a.m., Continuing Education and Conference Center, St. Paul campus: Rash takes the stage again to pose the question: Is it possible to move beyond hostile debate and reframe the social agenda? He is joined by Douglas Harmann, professor and associate chair of the Sociology Department at the University of Minnesota; and Adam Platt, executive editor of Mpls.St. Paul Magazine as well as editor of Twin Cities Business. Participation in the May 8 Discovery Forum is not required to take part in, or to enjoy, this seminar.

Visit www.discoveryforummn.com about the leading events and www.cce.umn.edu/discovery-forum/ for more information on the follow-up Saturday discussion.

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