Freezing temperatures didn’t stop people from getting up before the sun one March day to wait two hours for the doors to open for class registration at the Fremont County campus of Pueblo Community College.
And people in small mountain communities are often up past midnight, waiting for online registrations to open at 12:01 a.m. on specific days at Colorado Mountain College campuses.
These aren’t students ensuring their entry into that one last class needed for graduation. These are folks, mostly in their 60s, 70s and 80s, registering for noncredit, lifelong education courses such as watercolor basics, Pilates or the history of snake oil cures.
Continuing education takes many forms across Colorado, including tuition-free monitoring of classes at some large universities on a space-available basis, semester-long community education courses at many community colleges, and seminars and lectures offered by community organizations.
Ideas for connecting
To find community education opportunities, connect with local senior centers, historical societies, geology clubs, art centers and libraries to locate organizations that offer programs such as speakers on local history and walking tours.
If you belong to a club or organization, ask it to share information about programs with other clubs and organizations.
The thirst for such classes was evident in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that kept people at home, relegated to limited online learning that not only wasn’t as captivating but also meant they weren’t making friends.
At the weeklong Senior Mini College in March in Fremont County, it was clear that mingling over coffee and doughnuts and sitting with strangers-turned-friends for lunch was as much a part of the attraction as the 116 class offerings taught by volunteers. The seniors had taken over the campus during spring break since 1986, and the Mini College was back for its 36th year after a three-year pandemic hiatus.
“I went every year until they didn’t have it,” said 87-year-old Bonnie Gray, who moved to Cañon City in 2003. “I’ve missed it because it’s a way to take classes, learn new things and meet new friends.”
She was registered for classes in 2020, but the Mini College shut down the week before it was scheduled because of the pandemic.
This year, Gray filled her schedule for the four days of classes (the fifth day is reserved for field trips) and was thrilled to get coveted spots in yoga and watercolor painting. She was number 69 in line, arriving at 7:40 a.m. on the day registration opened at 8 a.m.
“It’s my very first watercolor class,” Gray said triumphantly.
By 10 a.m. on that first day of registration, the small watercolor classes were full, and by 11 a.m. most yoga and other exercise classes were full. People waited in line for as long as two hours for the in-person registration.
About 300 people attended one or more classes, said Debbie Herrera, an administrative assistant at the Fremont campus of Pueblo Community College.
The 11 Colorado Mountain College campuses had a total of nearly 4,000 registrations for 465 community classes in fall 2022 and spring 2023 semesters, said Sean Strode, assistant dean of instruction for CMC. The programs use the college facilities and classrooms but otherwise are self-sustaining.
“We came back pretty quickly,” Strode said. “As soon as things opened up people wanted to get back in the classes. Our numbers are back up — even stronger.”
Instructor Frank Ventura, left, critiques Bonnie Gray’s brush stroke technique during a Mini College painting class at Pueblo Community College’s Fremont campus in Cañon City on March 22. (Photos by Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun))
These kinds of programs are precisely what the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office this spring recommended be strengthened across the country to ease “the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country.”
Loneliness and isolation are linked to physical and mental health issues, including dementia, heart disease and stroke. The recommended solution? Social connection.
“Communities where residents are more connected with one another fare better on several measures of population health, community safety, community resilience when natural disasters strike, prosperity, and civic engagement,” the surgeon general’s office said in a news release.
While the loneliness epidemic was growing even before the pandemic, those involved in community education say it brought the issue home.
“After COVID people really started to realize how much we need each other,” said Kristen Green, the Vail Valley continuing education coordinator for Colorado Mountain Colleges. “That’s why community classes are so great — you get to learn something and be with like-minded people.”
And, she noted, “The No. 1 predictor of good health is a sense of connection to others.”
As a long-time member of the community herself, Green said she works to ensure class offerings at the CMC Vail Valley at Edwards campus are what the residents want.
“I focus on what our community wants,” she said. “Living in a resort area things are often geared toward visitors so it’s nice to have something for locals.”
She’s found that anything involving creativity or wellness is popular but she’s not afraid to try new things. When the Vail Valley Theatre Company approached her about offering theatrical dance classes, she was skeptical but willing to give it a try.
The theater company wanted to expand its reach and had instructors willing to teach, and Green works to build community partnerships so she wasted no time and the trial class was scheduled midway through the spring semester. It filled. The summer session is full too.
Occasionally, there are duds. Green thought a class on Google docs might be helpful as use of them increased. Nobody signed up, although Excel classes remain popular.
Each Colorado Mountain College campus has found its niche when it comes to community education, Strode said. The Breckenridge and Dillon campuses, for example, are home to the Summit Campus of the Culinary Institute and regularly offer one-session cooking classes. Steamboat Springs excels with outdoor classes. Summer camps for kids are popular in Glenwood.
“The great thing about noncredit is we are very flexible in what we can do and we’re pretty nimble in community education,” he said.
CMC has four campuses in the Roaring Fork Valley — in Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Carbondale — so they work closely to ensure they aren’t competing for students or teachers, said Marianne Ackerman, the community education coordinator in Carbondale.
People will drive to one of the other communities for a course they are passionate about, but most prefer to walk or ride their bike to class, she said.
She’s lived in the community for 40 years and previously worked at nonprofits so she has a strong sense of what residents want. For example, when she noticed interest in upcycled fashion at a popular annual fashion show fundraiser, she started to look for a sewing teacher.
She found one — and a flexible one at that. In sewing classes a student can learn the basics or bring a project and get help with it. Knowing and talking to students and instructors helps keep the programs strong.
“I have a certain group that loves doing fitness classes here and they come back semester after semester,” Ackermann said. “It’s affordable and for the most part an older demographic, so it’s a very social time.
“During COVID we switched to online, but it’s not the same as coming in and seeing your friends and stuff.”
Like the Fremont County Senior Mini College, the Pillar Institute for Lifelong Learning in Colorado Springs is a unique community education model. It’s an independent nonprofit that formed 24 years ago and has its office and classroom in the Chapel Hills Mall.
“Our motto is ‘Learning for the Fun of It,’” Executive Director Vickie Heffner said. “No papers, no homework. People want to keep learning and they want to learn new things — it keeps them alive as they age.”
Membership is $100 a year and includes discounts on classes, but membership is not required to take a class, most of which are a single session. The instructors are volunteers.
Heffner said history, and in particular local history, is the biggest draw. Before the pandemic technology classes were No. 2, but that has switched to geopolitics — the war in Ukraine, “things they hear about on the news.”
LEFT: Robin Stinchcomb peers through a magnifying glass to get a close look at some fossilized poop. RIGHT: Fossil Boot Camp instructor Harold Taylor, left, shows Jane Wustrow, center, a chunk of fossilized algae at Pueblo Community College on March 22. Will Cherry, right, looks on. (Photos by Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
TOP: Robin Stinchcomb peers through a magnifying glass to get a close look at some fossilized poop. BOTTOM: Fossil Boot Camp instructor Harold Taylor, left, shows Jane Wustrow, center, a chunk of fossilized algae at Pueblo Community College on March 22. Will Cherry, right, looks on. (Photos by Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
To meet that need, Heffner said they’ve tried a few “pop-up” classes to cover current affairs. One of the first was on the Chinese spy balloons and it drew more than 30 people, she said.
She warns her instructors that students won’t sit quietly for an hourlong lecture.
“As we age, we want to share our life experiences, we want to discuss, we want to ask questions,” she said. “I tell the instructors this is not just lecturing — our students want to ask questions.
“It’s a free-form part of learning — where we’re learning from each other, not just the instructor.”
Historical societies fill a big part of that thirst for local history classes, often offering free monthly programs in their communities.
History Colorado offers events throughout the state, including exhibits, talks and celebrations. According to its 2021 annual report, more than 59,000 adults participated in virtual or in-person education programs between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021 — the heart of the pandemic.
Sometimes, it is just a matter of finding out what’s offered.
Jane Trainer, 72 and a retired Cañon City teacher, said she was accustomed to hearing about all sorts of learning opportunities when she was a teacher, especially summer seminars. She’s taken classes on wildflowers at Rocky Mountain National Park, art classes through libraries and weeklong classes through the Colorado Endowment for the Arts.
This year, she was at the Fremont Mini College for the first time, although she had signed up in 2020 before it was canceled. She filled four days with classes such as creative doodling and the history of women in the Pikes Peak region.
“I came by myself and I’m loving it,” she said. “It’s a great way to learn.”
Instructors are key
Often what is offered in community education classes is based on who’s available to teach. Some teachers are paid, especially in places such as the CMC campuses that offer semester-long courses, and in other programs they volunteer.
Well-established programs have people they regularly call on, but coordinators also spend time recruiting and listening to pitches from new teachers.
Green said she’s recruited teachers through Facebook, the chamber of commerce and through community connections.
“Often what works best is to ask instructors if they know anybody who would like to teach for us,” she said. “Sometimes people just come to me.
“They are not trying to make a living teaching community classes. It’s mostly those who want to contribute to the community — retired people who want to stay active, stay engaged — and in the case of physical education it’s mostly people who are starting out and don’t yet have their own yoga studio or whatever.”
Heffner said the Pillar Institute, which uses volunteers, draws from colleges in the Pikes Peak region, including the Air Force Academy. Volunteers, students and donors are often the same people in multiple roles, she said, because they become part of the Pillar community.
The Senior Mini College also relies on volunteers from the community. Some teach a single class during the week and others, such as artist Frank Ventura, teach all week.
One of Ventura’s students this year was Shirley Squier, the former PCC Fremont campus director who started the Mini College in 1986.
“I never dreamed I’d be taking classes when we started it,” Squier said, paintbrush in hand as the watercolor lesson was about to begin. But she’s been taking them for 10 to 15 years.
This was Ventura’s first year at the Mini College, and he was shocked at how enthusiastic and productive the students were.
“If you have an atmosphere of having fun, it frees up the artist,” he said, noting that these classes were 75 minutes and usually his beginning watercolor classes are three hours.
In her introduction to a nearly three-hour estate planning class, lawyer Jolene DeVries said she’s a fifth-generation resident of Fremont County and this is a way for her to offer something directly to the community.
Herrera, the administrative assistant for Mini College, said there were more than 100 instructors and at least half had taught before.
And then there are instructors like Miss Kitty — Kitty Gwathmey — who’s “well into her 80s” and has been teaching tap dance for 30 years at the CMC Edwards campus. She volunteers her time and the class is offered for $29.
She does it, Green said, because she “loves to share her love of tap dance.”