There is an inexpensive way to have access to some of the Charlotte area’s top scholars and best cultural minds. But you may need to be a senior citizen to take advantage of those opportunities.
Queens University of Charlotte, Aldersgate and Davidson Learns are three local organizations offering easy – and in some cases, free – access to sought-after speakers such as poet and author Tony Abbott, recipient of the 2015 N.C. Award for Literature. And historian Tom Hanchett. And Maestros Christopher Warren-Green (Charlotte Symphony Orchestra) and James Meena (Opera Carolina).
There are other organizations offering classes as well. But the granddaddy (pun intended) of all the area senior leading programs is Queens University’s Senior Scholars, which began in 1973.
The group, with a membership of more than 750, meets weekly on an academic calendar. They take summers and December off. The popular program averages about 230 members each week. All that’s required is what director Carolyn Kibler calls “a whopping annual fee of $30 for the first year.” Dues go down to $20 for subsequent years.
The group has grown so large that it convenesat Queens’ sports complex on Tyvola Road. A different speaker – 70 percent from academia – visits each week for a 45-minute lecture generally followed by a 30-minute Q&A.
Speakers have included the conductors of the Charlotte Symphony and Opera Carolina, former Ambassador Mark Erwin, former U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins and Emmy-winning medical journalist Kevin Soden.
The group occasionally takes field trips to places like Johnson & Wales, the James K. Polk birthplace and the Carolinas Aviation Museum.
Instructors love it
Davidson Learns is not affiliated with the college, but the program does benefit from having Davidson (and a few UNC Charlotte) professors teach courses. While close to 75 percent of its students are retirees, it’s open to anyone over 18. Classes are in the morning, afternoon and evening to accommodate a variety of schedules.
The course length and cost vary. Around $60 for a five-week course is average, said Amy Diamond, the program’s director. Most classes meet at Temple Kol Tikvah in Davidson.
Class size is left to the discretion of the instructor. Tony Abbott likes to limit his poetry classes to 10 students. The popular Civil War series had about 30.
Every student is an eager student. “The instructors love it,” Diamond said. “They say there’s a different dynamic in these classes from others they teach. ‘You can’t get the adults to stop talking,’ they often say.”
Diamond says the courses are “very academic and rigorous” and the topics vary from mythology to genealogy to the Holocaust to “Hanging Chads: The Inside Story of the Presidential Recount in Florida.”
A course on Vietnam was taught by someone who had been a conscientious objector. Students included a Vietnam veteran, the widow of a vet and a few young people mostly unaware of the heated domestic conflict that had surrounded that undeclared war.
“There were some raw and emotional moments in that class,” Diamond said. “But having a mix of ages and life experiences makes classes interesting.”
Aldersgate, a 234-acre retirement community, began offering free monthly classes to residents – and anyone else, of any age – last August. The first talk in the Aldersgate Lifelong Learning program was on climate change. Tim Rogers, the community’s director of mission advancement, said a committee of residents chooses the programming, but it’s always cultural and often focuses on the community’s eastside neighborhood. In the planning stages are historical tours of east Charlotte, including Rosedale Plantation. The group is excited to take field trips to some authentic ethnic restaurants in the neighborhood. “We embrace where we are,” Rogers said.
Tom Hanchett, an expert on Southern foodways, is the perfect culinary tour guide for the current series of talks. His topic in January was “From Segregation to Salad Bowl Suburbs.” On Feb. 2, he’ll speak on “Food from Home,” and on March 3, “Charlotte History 101” is his theme. His lectures will be in the Aldersgate’s Shamrock Room at 7 p.m. They are free and open to the public.
Ready to hit the books again? Check out Davidson Learns (davidsonlearns.org) or Queens University’s Senior Scholars (seniorscholars.net). You don’t have to be a retiree to take advantage of Aldersgate’s (aldersgateccrc.com) learning series; it’s open to anyone. “We love millennials,” said Tim Rogers, Aldersgate’s director of mission advancement. Davidson Learns is, likewise, open to anyone 18 and up.
The Shepherd’s Center offers a weekly “Adventures in Learning” series at Sharon Presbyterian Church. Diverse offerings include jewelry-making, tai chi, bridge and “Understanding the U.S. Constitution.” Advance registration is required. shepherdscharlotte.org