Always wish you had studied architecture? Wonder if you would be better at science if you learned what interested you rather than what was required? Do you wish you better understood today's political issues more clearly or wish you could find others passionate about the same topics?
If you consider yourself curious and have a thirst for knowledge, it may be time to check out what courses are available for adult learners.
While colleges and universities welcome older adults into degree programs there are other ways to continue learning and stay sharp — adult enrichment education.
"Unlike adult education where the goal is to upgrade skills, get promoted, change careers, lifelong learning goals are existential," says Judy Mann, director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies. "Lifelong learners are people who embrace our information rich society, keep their senses active and their minds full of ideas."
Why keep learning?
If you are thinking that you've done your time in school, there are benefits to being a lifelong learner without the pressures of grades and tests.
Lifelong learning keeps people actively and meaningfully engaged with life, something studies show is key to successful aging, Mann says.
Kaye Buchman, associate director of Adult Continuing Education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), says in her 20 years in adult education it's impossible to account for all the benefits and rewards.
"I have seen firsthand how students who started out with what they describe as no creative ability or the drawing skills of a third grader become not only competent technical artists, but artists who have dedicated themselves to finding and achieving their own unique creative vision and purpose," she says.
Nancy Candice, 62, of Chicago, decided a year ago to return to her interest in art.
"Attending adult continuing education courses at my age is enlightening in the sense that the completion of a course is the beginning of self-discovery that resulted from being encouraged to try making art with new media that I had previously hesitated to try out of timidity," she says.
Judy Widen, 75, of Chicago attended an OLLI course after retiring and has continued and led groups.
"(I've gained) a lot of knowledge and understanding, a mind that is sharper than at any other time of my life, a curiosity about new things and new endeavors (publishing a creative piece of writing), the self confidence to speak up about things I care about, and — best of all — a whole new group of really good friends," Widen says.
Stuart Applebaum, 76, of Glencoe, has attended and led groups at OLLI for 15 years and says there is much to be gained.
"I never really had the time to delve into areas of interest such as history and classical literature," he says. "Once retired and becoming an OLLI member I was able to pursue many interesting subjects and, most importantly, take part in discussions about those subjects with a group of very astute people. One can appreciate reading a classic like 'Anna Karenina' on one's own but that cannot compare with reading and discussing it over a period of weeks with others," he says.
What is adult enrichment?
Programs vary from school to school, but Northwestern's OLLI is one of 115 supported by the Bernard Osher Foundation. Each OLLI program is unique and Northwestern's program is peer-led.
"OLLI is a learning community, where participants embrace learning for the pure joy of it. Our motto is 'Curiosity Never Retires.' This non-credit daytime program has no exams, no grades," Mann says.
SAIC's Adult Continuing Education noncredit programs offer a wide range of art and design courses for adult students who are interested in expanding their skills and knowledge in areas they have previously explored or are new, says Buchman. Adult students are with their peers in a setting that is challenging and supportive but takes into account the rich histories and busy schedules that adult students carry with them, Buchman says. Courses are on a pass/fail system so the importance of learning and sharing are prioritized over end results, she explains.
"SAIC takes pride in being an institution that nurtures the creative process in students of all ages," Buchman says.
Is it for me?
At OLLI many of the classes are attended by retirees. SAIC is a mix of those still in the workforce and just keeping their interests and skills sharp as well as those exploring in retirement. Some schools, like Benedictine University's Center for Lifelong Learners in Naperville, are geared specifically toward those 55 and older.
Barbara Akers, 71, of the Beverly/Morgan Park neighborhood, has taken courses at SAIC for 10 years. She says participants don't have to have any knowledge on a subject. She had no previous art experience before jumping in.
"I had always wanted to take drawing and painting classes, but until I retired, never really had the time," she says. "I have gained knowledge and hopefully skill in both drawing and painting, plus a greater understanding and appreciation of the processes that artists go through in order to produce a work."
Courses vary by program and school as does cost.
Because OLLI is a peer-led program, the participants help in all aspects of creating offerings, Mann says.
"We think of OLLI as a cooperative," she explains. "The coordinators also create the syllabus for the study group and select the study materials and once the study group begins they manage the study group."
The spring semester, which runs March 4 to June 7, includes 80 study groups on topics like The Joy of Jazz, Lewis and Clark: The Great Adventure, British History in Popular Film.
In her third year, Widen began to design and propose study groups in areas that she has always had a passion — current political affairs and live theater. Applebaum has led a variety of study groups from The Supreme Court & Constitution to A Year With Tolstoy.
At SAIC courses range from drawing, illustrating and painting to Intro to Architecture, Art History and Design Concepts. Design courses such as digital design, web design and graphic and interior design have been popular in the last few years.
"Courses in these areas offer adult students the opportunity to investigate the most current trends and practices from the ground up for use in both their professional and personal lives," Buchman says.
At OLLI members don't choose a topic and hear a lecture, but rather participate in dynamic seminar-style study groups, Mann explains.
"Members are coordinators, rather than teachers; they conceive and implement study groups featuring highly participatory, engaged discussion instead of lectures," she says. "We say people come here not to be taught, but to learn."
Widen says working on classes with other co-coordinators is one of her favorite parts about OLLI.
"Running a really good study group gives the coordinators a chance to learn more and to enjoy more than any other role. It's the best job at OLLI," she says.
Another enjoyment, Widen says, is the interaction with smart, nice and fun people not just through study groups but extra-curricular activities members enjoy including parties and field trips, attending lectures, touring museums and eating at an ethnic restaurant each month.
At SAIC courses are taught by artists who balance their work as architects, fine artists, fashion designers, graphic designers, illustrators, web designers, and writers with their passion for teaching, according to Buchman.
How do I get involved?
"I would encourage anyone interested in resurrecting a past dream of art making or brushing up on active art skills, or simply to anchor one's life with joy and delight to register for a course with the Continuing Studies department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago," says Candice.
Akers suggests anyone with a curiosity to learn to give it a try.
"Don't be intimidated," she says. "The teachers are wonderful and are extremely knowledgeable and patient. They understand and appreciate lifelong learners."
OLLI is offered as a membership program with a variety of packages and price points. First time OLLI members can select a one semester, one study group membership for $150. Scholarships are also available. Anyone interested in spring offerings or attending an information session can find out more by visiting www.scs.northwestern.edu/olli or call Northwestern's Evanston campus at 847-492-8204 or the Chicago campus at 312-503-7881.
SAIC courses run approximately $525 with discounts available for alumni and Art Institute of Chicago members. Scholarships and tuition assistance is available. Visit www.saic.edu/cs/ace for more information about available SAIC courses or call 312-629-6170.