Back to school

Deborah Hirsch

Sixty-two-year-old Linda Dillman has been coming to campus almost every week for the past 10 years.

She has gone through college, a career and retirement. Now she’s taking classes again — this time just for fun.

Dillman, an Evanston resident, is one of more than 700 older adults who convene every Tuesday and Thursday at Norris University Center for non-credit courses in the Alumnae of Northwestern University’s Continuing Education Program.

“I like the fact that here you are learning something that you don’t know anything about and from top-notch professors,” Dillman said.

The all-women’s alumnae group established the quarterly series of university-level classes in 1968.

“We wanted to share the resources of the university, to showcase the professors and help create a bridge between the community,” said Cynthia Pinkerton, Weinberg ’60, an alumnae board member and one of six women who founded the program. “There are a lot of us who enjoy the idea of professional studentship. It’s the stimulus and the interaction with people who are on the cutting edge of things.”

About 150 people signed up for the first two continuing education classes almost 35 years ago, when they were held at the John Evans Center or Scott Hall lounge. The program quickly expanded to include more courses on a “myriad of topics,” Pinkerton said.

“We covered almost everything that the university deals with,” she said.

Most of the participants are between ages 50 and 80, a shift from earlier years when a majority of the crowd consisted of middle-aged women, many of them homemakers, said Karla Stone, program chairwoman. There are also more equal numbers of men and women now.

“That’s rather gratifying to attract those kinds of people,” Stone said. “It’s not just a group of ladies who say, ‘Lets do lunch and go to an art lecture.’ These are truly people who want to keep their minds active and informed.”

The program consists of four courses each academic term and two during the summer, all usually meeting at Norris. Classes are open to any interested adults for a registration fee of $115 per course.

About 15 alumnae volunteers organize everything — from scheduling courses and handling registration to monitoring coat racks during class.

“It’s a very challenging thing to do, it’s like running a school within a school,” Stone said.

Registration for some courses at times exceeds available classroom space. A total of about 2,000 students enrolled last year and three classes this quarter have more than 200 students.

University faculty from various departments and other unaffiliated specialists teach the courses on a 10-week schedule coinciding with the NU calendar.

Stone said each year the group tries to offer classes in literature, history, political science, art history and religion “to cover all the bases of what would be a well-rounded curriculum.”

After researching course options, committee members seek out faculty who might be interested in teaching for payment of about $300 per lecture. Pinkerton said this pay usually is less than what a professor could earn leading a regular university course, but they don’t have to grade papers or give tests.

History Prof. Edward Muir said he teaches the courses for similar reasons students cite for taking them: personal enjoyment.

“The people are very interesting, they’re quite engaged and I get to know them and we do other things outside of the university,” he said.

This is Muir’s second time teaching a continuing education course. He said he developed his Renaissance history curriculum in response to what he thought the students wanted to learn.

Other courses this quarter focus on Nobel Prize-winning authors, Chicago’s transportation system and modern art.

“The professors are fantastic and they’re topics that normally I might not be interested in, but it’s a way to get involved,” said Rochelle Grill, 67, of Evanston.

With a growing number of students, the program has been generating about $100,000 in profit each year, Pinkerton said. All of the money goes back to NU as scholarships, fellowships and grants for university projects or academic enrichment programs.

“None of us back in 1968 (had) any appreciation of the scope of the number of people who would become interested in it or the opportunity to earn some money for the university, we were thinking in a much different scale,” Pinkerton said.

Stone said other universities, such as the University of Chicago as well as many senior centers throughout the North Shore, also offer educational programs for adults.

“Adult education is a booming business,” she said. “A huge part of the population is growing older and they don’t want to just sit there.”

Some of the continuing education students said the classes give them a chance to take advantage of missed opportunities.

“You have a lot of stuff that you didn’t study in school,” said Lee Stiles, 77, of Evanston. “There you’re sort of pressured to take stuff to help your employment, where now you aren’t.”

For others, taking the courses helps satisfy an internal drive for lifelong learning.

“It’s never too late to learn,” said Roseanne Schwartz, 86, former art teacher from Evanston. “It keeps you alert. When you are older you must be interested to be interesting.”