Groups of students make their way into Leonard Theatre in Peabody Hall, ready to sit through their weekly lecture. As they enter, they find their seats and chat among themselves to pass the time before the start of class.
This is a relatively common scene at Miami University, but these students are different than most. Many of them are white-haired, and they wear purple lanyards around their necks instead of backpacks on their shoulders.
The Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR) offers more than 70 classes each fall and spring in Oxford, Hamilton, Fairfield, Monroe and West Chester for older individuals — most of them retirees. Each semester is five weeks long, and the 2019 fall semester ended on Nov. 8.
The ILR was founded in 1997 and originally held 10 classes with 76 total students. Today, it holds 72 classes with 409 students. This past semester, it set a new enrollment record for the seventh consecutive year.
Judy Macke, the ILR program manager, said the increase in enrollment can be attributed to word-of-mouth, as the institute doesn’t advertise aside from publishing a catalog every semester.
“Two people tell two people who tell two people, and next thing you know, we’re breaking records every semester,” Macke said.
One of the 72 classes offered this fall was titled “The People’s Republic of China at 70,” held every Monday from 2:15 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. in Leonard Theatre. Every week, a different instructor gave a lecture related to the topic.
On Nov. 4, the featured instructor was Yihong Pan, a professor emerita of history. Her lecture was titled “The Rise of China: What Does It Mean?”
Pan introduced herself to the class and was quick to explain that, though she grew up in the People’s Republic of China, she was not yet 70 years old.
The joke produced a ripple of laughter throughout the room.
Though ILR classes don’t give homework or have tests, many students diligently took notes during Pan’s lecture. One student sneakily checked his phone a couple times and another started to doze off halfway through.
Really, it didn’t look much different from any other lecture class at Miami.
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Kathryn McGrew, professor emerita of gerontology, said that she was drawn to the ILR by a deep curiosity and love of learning that wasn’t as present during her undergraduate years.
“I wish I had the thirst and curiosity back then that I do now,” McGrew said. “I can’t get enough information and understanding.”
Most of the students are retirees like McGrew, and about 75 percent of them have some tie to Miami. Similarly, many of the instructors are current and retired Miami faculty, as well as business leaders, alumni and other members of the community.
Some students, such as Jack Sommer, teach classes in addition to taking them. Sommer said that his motivation for taking and teaching classes is the same: passion for the subject matter.
“The people who speak are people who really love to talk about [the subject matter], so that’s a good reason to take the classes,” Sommer said. “But it’s also fun to teach, because then you get to be part of a discussion on subject matters you really love.”
Macke said that, in addition to the genuine desire to learn, ILR classes differ from undergraduate classes because the students all bring their unique lived experiences to their classes.
“They’re coming back [to class] after they’ve had a lifetime of experiences,” Macke said. “The instructors often say that they feel like they learn more than they teach because the students have such a caliber of experiences that they’re bringing to share.”
For some students, these experiences consist of their careers and travels. Others, such as Ned Toms, bring more intense experiences to their classes.
Toms started taking ILR classes about ten years ago, and he was drawn to the program by a class that was offered on grief. The class helped him process the death of his 31-year-old daughter in 2006, and he continued taking other classes to keep his mind sharp.
“[The class] helped me cope with the pain of losing a child,” Toms wrote in a handwritten note to The Miami Student. “It keeps my brain oiled and challenges me to think.”
After Pan’s lecture, a few students stayed behind to ask her questions. Most exited the theater, chatting and laughing with their friends along the way, much like any other group of Miami students.
A previous version of this story stated that the ILR set an enrollment record for the seventh consecutive semester. The story has been changed to reflect that they in fact set a record for the seventh consecutive year.