Pat Hart stayed very busy as a manager at Verizon, but then she retired.
"My daughter told me I had to get a life," the 70-year-old Waterford resident recalled.
In an attempt to follow her daughter's instructions and also to extinguish the boredom that came along with retirement, Hart enrolled in the Academy for Lifelong Learning and started taking courses.
"No question, it's the best thing I ever did," she said. "If you've worked for many, many years and you've been in a position where you worked a lot of hours and were very challenged in what you were doing, you can't just stay home. You just can't."
Established in 1992, the Academy is a nonprofit, member-driven organization of mature learners sponsored by SUNY Empire State College and affiliated with the Elderhostel Institute Network. Classes are offered in both spring and fall, on topics ranging from Beginning Italian Conversation to Mindful Doodling to Secret Lives of the First Ladies.
The fall semester, which runs from Sept. 10 to Nov. 19, includes more than 20 noncredit offerings. The roster features a painting lab, a writers' circle, interpretive hikes at Moreau Lake State Park and a discussion group about current world issues. The Academy also offers special events that are free and open to the public.
"It's learning for the joy of learning," said Executive Director Jo-Ellen Unger, who has been at the helm of the organization for 18 years. "A lot of [the students] enjoy this now because they didn't have the chance to take these kinds of courses when they were taking their undergraduate or their graduate [ones]. So, many of them will go into subject areas that they never had a chance to study before. Some will pursue interests they've had all their lives and others will find brand new interests."
All of the courses are taught by volunteers, and aside from Unger and a receptionist, the Academy is completely volunteer driven.
"What I think is most impressive about the Academy members is that they're very busy people, they're very vital people and they've set education as their priority. It's something that they think is a priority in their lives, so they put aside time in their busy schedules to take the classes and participate and lead classes and be on the committees and so forth," Unger said.
Pat Davis, chair of the academy's executive council, has been a member since 2007. A retired librarian, she was looking for a way to keep active and participating in the academy turned out to be an excellent way for her to do that.
"If you go to the study groups, you're not just attending a lecture. It's very participatory. You have opportunities for discussion. You can take art classes and do hands-on painting and drawing," she said.
Class attendees often branch out and form informal groups to participate in activities of mutual interest, like attending theater productions or having book discussions. "You meet so many people you never would have encountered otherwise," Davis said.
The academy's student body is made up of about 80 percent women, a fact that doesn't phase Lou Tirelli, chair of the Academy's curriculum committee, at all. The 65-year-old retired engineer received an academy membership as a gift from his wife when he retired. "She thought I needed something to do," he said.
Although he said he's not big on "literature-type stuff," he has enjoyed the academy's history, hiking and drawing courses, and has made some good friends along the way. He tries to get other men involved, often without much success.
"A lot of them say, 'I worked hard all those years, I was always busy, I don't want to do anything now,' and unfortunately they sit home," he said.
Tirelli thinks the classes are more fun than work. "It's low key, there's no pressure, you're not going to be taking tests, you get what you put into it. You're not going to be put on the spot. You can just sit there," he said.
In honor of the academy's 20th anniversary, special study groups and social opportunities are being offered. The theme of the anniversary celebration is "Nourish Your Body, Nourish Your Mind." Scheduled programs include a food forum featuring local farmers and farm preservation officials, an al fresco dinner at a local farm and a golf outing.
A full annual membership to the academy, which entitles the enrollee to participate in up to three courses during both the fall and spring term and attend all special events and programs, is $250. A single-term membership is $140. Individuals who are unable to take courses but wish to support the academy and participate in special events and programs can purchase an associate membership for $35.
For more information about the Academy, visit www.esc.edu/ALL.