Learning never ends thanks to colleges in our backyard

Italian vineyards are favorite travel destinations for FGCU Academy students.

Italian vineyards are favorite travel destinations for FGCU Academy students. Credit: FGCU

As the options for college continue to expand in Southwest Florida, retirees eager for higher learning are part of the big picture. They can take classes alongside students as young as their grandchildren or sign up for courses and world travel designed just for them.

Hodges University, in fact, specializes in bringing classes to where clusters of retired students live. That helps people who do not drive anymore, saves Hodges campus space for degree classes and offers retirement communities a marketing tool.

Peg Ryan, director of Hodges’ Frances Pew Hayes Center for Lifelong Learning (hodges.edu/lifelong-learning), networks with activities directors at communities such as Shell Point, Arbor Trace, All Seasons and Bonita Bay. The directors identify what residents want to learn, and Ryan scouts for local experts. Example: When a community recently indicated an interest in aviation, she reached out to Naples Municipal Airport. “It works,” she told Spotlight.

FGCU Academy students rode camels to a wine and cheese party.

FGCU Academy students rode camels to a wine and cheese party. Credit: FGCU

A Hodges brochure proclaiming “Learning Never Retires” outlines topics including art, science, history, technology, health and languages. Highlighted benefits include boosting energy, mental sharpness, problem-solving and new friendships – even lowered blood pressure. Field trips allow students to better understand issues such as river pollution and solutions.

Sandy Steinbach, director of resident services at Arbor Trace, says classes enhance residents’ quality of life. “We appreciate all of the teachers who come here to present to us,” she said, “as we love to learn!”

Ryan said students were grateful for classes via Zoom during the 2020 pandemic. “But they are tired of that now and eager to meet again in person,” she said.

Florida Gulf Coast University’s Academy program, touting “Learning for Life,” features staff, faculty and guest lecturers with special experiences and insights. “Southwest Florida is fortunate to have an incredibly rich and diverse retiree population that comes from all walks of life – retired academics, former CEOs and CFOs, scientists and researchers, doctors, journalists, clergy, nutritionists, tai chi and yoga instructors, ambassadors and foreign service agents, authors, musicians, horticulturalists, lawyers, etc.,” said John Guerra, FGCU Academy director and technology teacher. “The academy does not have any advanced degree requirements in order to lecture. We simply expect our speakers to bring passion, talent and ability tethered to subject matter expertise.

FGCU Academy students tour Sicily.

FGCU Academy students tour Sicily.

“Our premise is not only does everyone have something to learn, but we also believe everyone has something they can teach.”

The results are reflected in the scope of FGCU Academy’s offerings, which fill 10 pages on its website, FGCU.edu/academy.

The academy, which encourages students to buy annual $85 memberships to earn tuition discounts, also sponsors small-group educational journeys throughout the world – 30 countries in the past dozen years – led by FGCU faculty or experienced guides in each locale.

Classes are held on campus as well as country clubs, retirement communities, continuing care communities and other sites from The Arlington in East Naples to The Brooks in Estero and The Collaboratory in Fort Myers. Some classes will remain online, where all content pivoted due to the pandemic in 2020.

All told, the FGCU Academy hosts 1,000 lectures, classes and trips each year for 12,000 students.

“There are no grades, exams or homework,” Guerra told Spotlight. “Academy participants seek knowledge, inspiration, creativity and good health.”

Florida SouthWestern State College, meanwhile, chooses another strategy to connect. Rather than sponsor a specialty program for seniors, FSW invites seniors to register just like any other students for regular classes via FSW.edu.

“There really are two categories of adult learners: the students who are taking classes for enrichment and the students who are taking classes for a certificate or degree in order to provide a better life for themselves and their families,” explained Delores Kiesler, coordinator for adult learning services. The latter, she said, “are usually students who have jobs and family responsibilities that take precedence over school. They are often doing their schoolwork over their lunch break at work, late at night or early in the morning when everyone else in the household is asleep.’’

Kiesler’s breakdown of adult learning invites a look at student bodies at FSW, Hodges and FGCU. FSW hosts about 3,000 degree-seeking students over age 25 among the population of 15,000. At Hodges, 99 percent of the student body is 25 and over, reflecting Hodges’ niche as a hub for professionals and veterans seeking additional skill sets. FGCU, meanwhile, counts only 1,400 students 25 and over among the 16,000 on campus now.