The Lifelong Learning Institute at Virginia Tech has for years provided intellectual, cultural, and social experiences for older adults in the New River Valley. Now, thanks to a partnership with AARP Virginia, a series of the institute’s free lectures is available to people around the country.

AARP, the advocacy group for older Americans, promoted and provided access to several of the institute’s Free Friday Lectures to its nationwide membership. That boosted the institute’s reach and brought greater awareness to the educational opportunities available online to interested adults no matter where they are located.

The institute, part of Continuing and Professional Education in Outreach and International Affairs, is a member-driven, volunteer organization that draws on the wealth of academic and community resources in the region.

Pat Hyer, associate provost emerita of academic administration and a volunteer who helped start the institute in 2015, describes its work as “building a learning community” for older adults.

Naturally, it’s a community filled with Hokies. Along with Hyer, many alumni and former and current faculty and staff are members or serve as volunteers.

Arthur Buikema, an Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus in biology, has been taking classes with the Lifelong Learning Institute for five years, mostly concentrating on improving his art skills.

“I wanted to continue to learn, and I learn something new — a new brush, a new technique, using a new color — in every class. I didn’t want to retire and just watch TV. I’m 81 and having fun,” he said.

A woman digs through a wooden box of colorful art supplies.
Jacqueline Read sifts through her art supplies during a watercolor course. Lifelong Learning Institute membership is open to anyone 50 and older.

Membership is open to anyone 50 and older. Registration is held in two terms — spring and fall — with weekly classes running for three to eight weeks. The courses span a variety of topics, including current events, painting, literature, finance, travel, culinary arts, world and local history, and technology.

The “Sampler” and “Great Decisions” programs are some of the most popular. Sampler offers a range of speakers and subjects with a new topic each week. Great Decisions, meanwhile, provides a community discussion on world affairs. This year, lectures on Russia and Ukraine were followed by a discussion led by Aaron Brantly, associate professor of political science.

“We truly showcase Virginia Tech — from retired and current faculty instructors sharing their expertise through classes to tours of laboratories and conversations highlighting university initiatives. There’s a deep connection between university resources and our curious audience who wants to learn,” Hyer said.

Susan E. Short, associate vice president for engagement, said, “Because of the work of the Lifelong Learning Institute, hundreds of older adults each year are able to learn and build on new and existing skills and passions. It’s an outstanding example of how Virginia Tech continues to fulfill its engagement mission and share the expertise of the university with the community.”

In addition to lectures and classes, the institute also offers travel opportunities regionally and around the world. Past destinations have included New York City, the Florida Keys, New Orleans, Cuba, Costa Rica, and Washington, D.C. — where the group had a private tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture with poet Nikki Giovanni.

“It was just an amazing and unforgettable experience. These types of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities are possible for members because of our partnerships with Virginia Tech,” Hyer said.

Classes — moved online in 2020 — are now returning to in-person lectures and events. However, the institute plans to continue offering many courses and lectures virtually, too. The virtual format allows increased access for many participants and also allows the institute to add speakers from outside Blacksburg to its lineup of experts.

The institute’s joint lecture series with AARP Virginia kicked off with Blacksburg native David Givens, the lead archeologist at the Jamestown Rediscovery Project. Other lecture topics include “West Side Story,” Florida’s natural treasures, and the Innovation Campus. The lectures draw hundreds of participants, and many in that wider audience later become members.

“As the archeology talk began, it was so fun to see the webinar’s chat box fill with notes from participants from all over the country. ‘Signing in from North Dakota.’ ‘We’ve got 3 inches of snow in Chicago.’ We don’t normally see that in our membership,” Hyer said. “It’s part of our mission to be able to share these resources in a broader way. We want to serve more people who are seeking the kind of content that Virginia Tech can produce. We don’t do this just for our own benefit; Virginia Tech has always been an engaged institution.”

For more information, including details on how to become a member, visit the Lifelong Learning Institute’s website.

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