Learning Curve

A thirst for knowledge buoys new avenues of continuing education for Florida residents

It’s a sunny afternoon on the campus of Academy East, State College of Florida, Lakewood Ranch, and a lively conversation has broken out be- tween a group of unconventional students. The group is excitedly dissecting pivotal movie scenes directed by an award-winning filmmaker, bouncing theories and observations off of one another. But unlike your typical film students, these pupils aren’t jockeying for the instructor’s attention. Instead, they’re here for the academic stimulation and camaraderie of like-minded folks. No grades required (or offered).

This film class is just one of many lifelong learning opportunities offered to residents of Florida’s Gulf Coast. Sarasota in particular has a robust continuing education community, with courses, lectures and even academic adventures at the ready for locals yearning to take their education beyond the baccalaureate years. Available on prominent collegiate campuses and through nonprofit organizations, chances are if something has piqued one’s curiosity, there’s a class for that.

“Sarasota attracts people who want a retirement that is rich in experiences but not located in a large metropolitan area like Miami or Tampa,” explains Janna Overstreet, the executive director for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Ringling College. “Lifelong learning, along with our vibrant art, theater, music, galleries and beautiful beaches, provides all the re- sources you would find in the most popular metropolitan areas in a small city setting.” Overstreet has seen a significant increase in enrollment since she began working with the Lifelong Learning Academy, a nonprofit educational organization, in 1997. They partnered with Ringling College in 2016 and most recently were designated an OLLI. What began as a grassroots organization of 50 people who taught one another turned into a program that serves 4,000 students annually.

“One thing we always hear from our students is that they appreciate having a place where they can be around like- minded individuals who place a premium on education,” Overstreet says. “They also appreciate instructors who take the time for post-class discussions. We have programs like Einstein’s Circle and our lecture series that give our students — and the public — opportunities to hear local and nationally known experts on a variety of subjects.”

Not merely for retirees, these types of programs offer courses for career-minded individuals working to advance in their chosen field or pick up skills that may help them transition to a different one.

“Today’s lifelong learners are interested in IT-related training and ways to improve their computer skills for work and personal use,” says Jamie Smith, communica- tions and marketing director at State College of Florida, Manatee–Sarasota (SCF). “We have an increased inter- est in second language programs, such as conversational Spanish and Italian. The college opened SCF’s Bradenton Symphony Orchestra to community members last year and has had tremendous response. We listen to the com- munity, and our offerings change with demand.”

When designing its new library and learning center, Smith says SCF kept students from all walks of life in mind to ensure an inviting space for every type of learner.

“SCF partners with the business community, service organizations and other nonprofits to find out what life- long learning opportunities would be beneficial to keeping our area vital,” she says. “Our mission is to boldly engage our entire community.”

Similarly, OLLI takes cues from its student body and instructors to enhance its course schedule to fit their growing interests and needs. “Our Curriculum Committee is comprised of 14 student-volunteers who serve as Topic Area Chairs,” Overstreet says. “They review every proposal, resume and course syllabus and interview potential instructors. They also attend the instructor’s first course to offer both assistance and feedback.”

Based on the OLLI’s loyal following, this approach appears to be working. Overstreet says many courses are full or half-full on the first day of registration, with students staying up until the stroke of midnight to snag a highly coveted class.

“As we like to say, lifelong learning is a great way to en- gage in ‘learning for the pure joy of learning’ and to devel- op new friends in a new place,” she explains. “That is the crux of why this type of educational offering is so popular. Some students also engage in courses to enhance their skills or expand their business as a creative.”

Without the pressure of exams and grades, students find a freedom in exploring topics of interest that may have previously felt intimidating. In these zero-stress classrooms, learning becomes a sought-after challenge as opposed to a mandatory task.

“The beauty of lifelong learning is that students can choose to be as engaged as they wish to be,” Overstreet says. “We offer courses five days a week in three different locations. We provide a service that we believe enhances the quality of life for older adults and enables them to keep pushing themself mentally and creatively

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