Doors open and friendships bloom in lifelong learning classes across the Great Lake Bay Region

Dinosaurs inspired Tom Le Tourneau to continue his formal education into his 50s. In her 60s, Sue Bergeson discovered a passion for artistic welding.

While they have different motives, both Le Tourneau, 53, and Bergeson, 62, are among thousands of adults taking advantage of lifelong learning programs at local colleges.

Le Tourneau is pursuing his 4th degree at Delta College. This time around, he’s learning about mechatronics, a combination of mechanical and electrical engineering.  His goal is to get ahead in his career. When asked why he has continually pursued education throughout his career Le Tourneau responded simply ‘dinosaurs.’

“Dinosaurs couldn’t adapt, they died. I don’t want to die,” Le Tourneau said. “It’s a phrase that we use in the environment I’m in because you always have to adapt in manufacturing because your competitors are adapting.”

An unconventional flower vase Sue Bergeson made using rusty screws and test tubes sits on a table. Bergeson is involved in programs through Mid Michigan College’s (MMC), which has campuses in Mt. Pleasant and Harrison. Other programs for older adults are offered at Central Michigan University and Saginaw Valley State University.

According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. economy is evolving to fit a new “knowledge-focused age” of the 21st century. This forces workers and communities across the country to continually develop new skills and abilities, placing a renewed importance on the role of lifelong learning in society.

Lifelong learning encompasses many different types of education and diverse demographics: the teacher continuously renewing his certifications, the parent going back to school to provide for her family, the retiree looking to explore new passions, and more.

Saginaw Valley State University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) focuses on providing fun and enriching classes for seniors. For a $60 annual fee, those 50 or older can join OLLI and receive access to monthly meetings, special interest groups, and campus facilities among other benefits. While the over 200 classes OLLI offers are not included in the yearly fee, the classes are at reduced cost.

OLLI, which currently has approximately 1,700 members, strives to create a vibrant community where seniors can explore their interests and build connections, according to OLLI Director Katherine Ellison.

“Time and again I've had members tell me that OLLI saved their lives,” said Ellison. “We have many members who have lost their spouses, especially after caring for them for a prolonged period, and found themselves alone and without a support system. By joining OLLI they get the benefit of meeting other people, making friends, and keeping their minds active.”

Delta College’s Continuing Education offerings, formerly known as LifeLong Learning, focus specifically on career readiness, partnering with companies and industries to provide the certification and education opportunities needed in the workforce. The college’s lifelong learning classes include basic life support for healthcare providers, law enforcement training opportunities, and phlebotomy technician training. Generally, these classes last one day to several weeks and are often offered at a reduced cost.

“As diverse as the offerings are in continuing education it all still falls in line with trying to be very affordable for our students and community members,” said Lindsey Bourassa, a career development and employer talent pipeline liaison at Delta College. “Delta College is trying to be the community’s first choice to learn and grow, and to be the partner in the region that’s able to align with those workforce needs.”

Central Michigan University too offers many opportunities for lifelong learning and creates an environment where students of all ages can interact. Through the Senior Citizen Audit Program at CMU, Michigan residents age 60 or older can attend on-campus undergraduate courses at no cost. Intermingling senior citizens with traditional-age undergraduate college students leads to more diverse and more enriching classroom experiences for all parties.

“Anytime we can add diversity to a classroom it allows students to learn from one another,” said Jody Hassen, CMU’s executive director of operations for enrollment and student services. “It’s not just that younger students are learning from older students, older students are learning from younger students as well.”

MMC offers classes on topics as diverse as herbal medicine and basic dog training to fall prevention and tax-free investing. The classes are free or at reduced cost.

“It provides them with opportunities to learn and opportunities to learn about subjects that they are dedicated to and interested in,” said Scott Mertes, the vice president of community outreach and advancement at MMC.

A sign which reads ‘Be a fruit loop in a world filled with cheerios’ exemplifies Sue Bergeson’s outlook on life. Bergeson ­– who lives with her two dogs in a little pink cottage overlooking Gray Lake – joined the MMC lifelong learning program in 2018. Bergesen has worn many hats in her lifetime. She’s a mental health advocate, cancer survivor, and world traveler. She stumbled upon her newest passion when she enrolled in an artistic welding class at MMC.

“I was definitely looking for ways to meet people and ways to connect to the community and try something different. I’ve done a lot of things in my life and I thought ‘this is crazy and so different and why don’t I try?’,” said Bergeson. “Immediately I was totally hooked.”

Bergeson loved the class so much that she took it again in 2019 and is currently enrolled in it for the third time. She also took a retirement planning class at MMC and is planning to take a bird watching class this spring. 

Pieces from her artistic welding collection include a pig with wings, bird sculpture, yard decorations, and tables all made from scrap metal. She has even sold pieces at several art fairs, yet she welds only for the purpose of making things that make her smile.

“I think that when we’re curious and trying new things it opens up our lives in a way that you don’t expect and brings lot of happiness and joy,” says Bergeson. “You gain confidence, you meet new people and it helps you think differently.”

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