For participants of Alexandria Technical and Community College’s Senior College, lectures are something fun to go to, to learn something new and talk with others about afterward.

But for some, there’s a second half to the story. Shelly Karnis works as a real estate agent and started attending Senior College with her father in the fall of 2014. They both loved it.

“During the week or during the year, we were always referencing one of the classes that we had heard,” she said.

After three years of attending, her father died. Shortly after, Karnis’s brother began joining her at the lectures after his wife died. Going to classes together has been educational and enjoyable, and also a form of healing for them.

“We needed something to look forward to, to talk about and get our minds on something other than being sad,” Karnis said.

The program is college-level learning without tests, homework or grades. It was founded when a group of people came together in 2006, discussing their desire for senior learning at the college level. The first class was held in 2007.

The first lecture of the fall is free, and is Thursday, Sept. 5 at 3:15 p.m. in room 743 of the ATCC Technology Information Center. Osakis native Leif Enger will be the featured speaker.

Attendance growing

The classes are meant to serve older folks, but the age range of participants varies from roughly 45 into the 90s. People come from not just Alexandria, but all of west-central Minnesota. Classes are set up in a series of 15 lectures which are scheduled periodically during an eight week period, with one term in the fall and one in the spring.

After the first free lecture, signing up for all 15 lectures costs $110. Each class has refreshments for participants.

There also is a shorter term on one topic in the winter that lasts six weeks.

The topics this fall span from the Minnesota economy to rural identification as a political influence, government, national parks, cyber conflict and geopolitics, Ireland, presidents and more.

Amy Sunderland, director of Senior College for the last seven years, said attendance has been on a steady trajectory of growth as the years have gone on.

“In addition to a lot of people moving to town and looking for things Alexandria has going, this is one of the really wonderful things for retirees in particular,” she said.

“There’s this attraction to learning and being in an environment where there are new ideas. You can explore new topics and you have coffee and cookies with familiar people."

Sunderland organizes the speakers and puts together the term, trying to draw from a number of different universities around the state and different disciplines. She said the topics go beyond the news and give people something to work with in their thinking.

“I think it … helps us make sense of this crazy world," she said.

Van Gooch is a retired biology professor from the University of Minnesota in Morris who has attended Senior College and has spoken on various topics himself during classes. These topics include the kidney, bioluminescence, his experiences with living in a home that uses zero energy, circadian rhythms, DNA and technology and human reproduction.

Gooch does a good job getting people interested, Sunderland said.

“Someone who’s just a gifted teacher can ignite a fire and just light up a room with their energy and expertise, and he has done that," she said. "It’s wonderful.”

Gooch said teaching Senior College classes is different than it was at the U of M Morris.

“The audience is very interactive; they’re very interested,” he said. “Some of those subjects I probably would not have thought of doing, but knowing that this audience is interested in anything that you talk about that’s interesting, that’s rather spectacular.”

He will be lecturing in this year’s Senior College, and plans to cover prehistoric birds.

The speeches are not meant to be political, but they can provide context, Sunderland said.

“We have people who are talking about things from their area of expertise, but it turns out to be such an interesting backdrop to current issues. I think people love that too," she said.

Louis Johnston, an economics professor from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, will be giving the first lecture of the regular lecture season on Tuesday, Sept. 10. He will cover Minnesota’s economy and then will lecture again on Sept. 26 about the government’s role in the U.S. economy.

He said the dynamic of lecturing to seniors is different from lecturing to young adults. In college, he teaches classes students have to take. Senior College is all voluntary, he said, and is a great example of seeing how learning never stops.

“Everybody really wants to be there; they’ve chosen it. They’re all attentive, they’re all participating and they have something that your average undergrad doesn’t have, which is life experience,” he said.

Senior College participants tend to ask questions based on their life experience, which makes it interesting for him as a lecturer, Johnston said. For example, while discussing the economics of health care in the U.S., he learned that some seniors in the class didn’t have insurance until they got Medicare. It wasn’t until then that they were able to get operations or treatment for chronic health conditions.

He gave a similar lecture to college undergraduates and the students had the mindset of thinking they would never get sick or need to buy health insurance.

“I look forward to (lecturing)," said Johnston, who resides in St. Cloud. "It’s a nice day and then I get to have a nice conversation with some sharp people."

Karnis said learning is really important. “If you don’t, it’s sort of like use it or lose it,” she said.

Senior College has helped expand her views and interests because the topics cover material she never learned in school.

“It’s like, oh my god, I’ve been missing this my whole life. I never understood this,” Karnis said.

“So often you think what’s going to be the worst class or the one you think you might skip, ends up being the best one, because you never know,” Karnis said. “Rarely was I ever disappointed.”