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

In a little pink cottage, Sue Bergeson and her two dogs — small and dressed in pink sweaters — overlook a frozen Gray Lake, their colorfulness in stark contrast to the icy whiteness surrounding them. The cottage’s walls are meticulously covered in artwork, each piece wonderfully vibrant and unabashedly quirky. Displayed lovingly on shelves and tables, there are artifacts and souvenirs from every continent except Antarctica.

Sue Bergeson sits in her living room, which overlooks Gray Lake, holding her two dogs, Andromeda and Alsyon. Bergeson, 62, with her light gray hair and bright, curious eyes, has been many things in her life: a mental health advocate, cancer survivor, world traveler, and much more. Her newest, delightfully unexpected title is that of artistic welder.

She stumbled upon her newest passion in 2018 when she enrolled in an artistic welding class through Mid Michigan College’s lifelong learning program.

“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’,” says 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 gained a whole new skill set that makes me laugh and gives me a lot of pleasure and joy. It makes me laugh and it connected me to the community more,” says Bergeson. “It gets me out and meeting new people which is a lot of fun.”

Bergeson displays a pig with wings that she made out of an old screw and other industrial scrap metal in her artistic welding class.

For many like Bergeson, lifelong learning opens the door to the possibility of a better future whether that be improved job opportunities, finding a new hobby or passion, forming relationships, personal growth, or a sense of self accomplishment. It is the conduit through which individuals help their community thrive as they themselves grow and evolve.

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

Yet, lifelong learning is no simple, easily-definable thing. It encompasses many different types of education and diverse demographics: the teacher continuously renewing their certifications, the parent going back to school to provide for their family, the retiree looking to explore new passions, and more.

Practically every inch of Bergeson's home is covered in artwork and souvenirs from her many travels.

Luckily, there are many places within the Great Lakes Bay Region where lifelong learning is found in all its different forms. MMC, with its robust lifelong learning program, is one such place. It offers classes ranging in topic from herbal medicine and basic dog training to fall prevention and tax-free investing — all of which are free or reduced cost.

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

Saginaw Valley State University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), similarly 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 reduced cost.

An unconventional flower vase Bergeson made using rusty screws and test tubes sits on a table. 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 the Director of OLLI, Katherine Ellison.

“Time and again I've had members tell me that OLLI saved their lives,” says 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.”

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 to them. Intermingling senior citizens with traditionally-aged undergraduate college students leads to a more diverse and, in theory, more enriching classroom experience for all parties.

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

Delta College’s lifelong learning program focuses 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,” says 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.”

Delta student Tom Le Tourneau, 53, while not taking continuing education classes, is using Delta to get ahead in his career. Le Tourneau is currently pursuing his fourth degree, this one in mechatronics, a combination of mechanical and electrical engineering. When asked why he has continually pursued further 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.”

A sign which reads 'Be a fruit loop in a world filled with cheerios' exemplifies Bergeson's outlook on life.

Whether lifelong learning be a necessity of the workforce or a fun hobby, it transforms the individuals and communities touched by it. For Bergeson, it is a gift that helped open the door to many interesting and diverse experiences.

“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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