Union College program draws older learners

In most college classes, a professor who asked a question about the oil embargo of 1973 might get a

In most college classes, a professor who asked a question about the oil embargo of 1973 might get a room full of blank stares about the time long before most of the students were born.

But hands went up all over the class when Bill Reinhardt asked a question about the embargo during a recent afternoon at the Union College Academy of Lifelong Learning (UCALL). Most of the students were in their 40s or 50s then, prime years of careers and child-rearing and driving cars. Now they’re of retirement age — not your typical college students — but they’re still learning and enjoy taking classes on topics such as architecture, law, energy, elections and opera.

Nor is Reinhardt a typical college professor. He’s a global energy expert and senior project manager at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and didn’t get paid for the class he taught.

UCALL has been in place for 22 years and attracted a record 350 enrollees this fall rather than the usual 300 or so students, said Valerie D’Amario, UCALL director.

“It’s learning for the love of learning,” she said. “It gives members an opportunity to explore interests that they didn’t have time for when they were pursuing their careers.”

Students have no homework and no tests. In the break in the middle of the two-hour classes, there’s coffee and snacks.

There are six courses a semester, and they meet once a week for five weeks. Teachers and program developers are volunteers, and many are also UCALL students who have gotten more involved, lending their expertise to the program.

“Our members come from a variety of backgrounds, but most of them are retired professionals,” D’Amario said. “They bring with them a tremendous amount of experience and talent.”

Anyone can sign up, but most of the enrollees are of retirement age. Union College undergraduates can attend for free, but few do.

The cost is $65 a year plus $25 tuition per class. Paying for two classes allows you to attend as many as you want.

People who want to get on the mailing list for the spring program can visit www.union.edu/UCALL or call 388-6072.

Some UCALL students are retired engineers from General Electric, such as Phil Adams of Glenville and Jim Comly of Niskayuna.

“Now we’re retired and now we can learn all the things we couldn’t get to,” said Comly, 73, who serves as UCALL’s chairman of the curriculum committee.

Anna Saville takes notes during the classes, in part to use some of the information in presentations to her church. “You use it in other areas of life also,” said Saville, 78, of Glenville. She is chairwoman of UCALL’s steering committee. In addition to learning, seniors enjoy the social benefit of the classes. The program also offers trips. “You’ve got to use your brain or you’re going to lose it,” said Adams, 76. Josef Schmee’s opera class is a popular one every year. “We have at least 150 people sitting in on his class,” D’Amario said.

The retired Union College statistics professor takes the “stuffiness” out of opera, Saville said.

That class is UCALL student Bart Bisgrove’s favorite.

“I’ve always taken that course,” said Bisgrove, who lives in Niskayuna and works part-time as a campus safety officer at Union in his retirement.

Presenters enjoy teaching UCALL classes, Saville said. “They always love to present because we pay attention and we ask questions.”

Older adults often take a bigger civic role in their communities than younger people do, Saville noted.

“We understand how important it is to know about your government and what’s going on in your world.”

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