Elderhostel; When seniors become freshmen

To those who accept the dictionary definition of "hosteler" as "a young traveler who stops at hostels overnight," Kaspar and Violet Myrvaagnes are a decided oddity. They started hosteling after they retired.

"As a young person I always wanted to go to youth hostels, but never succeeded in doing it," says Mrs. Myrvaagnes. "When I saw an ad in the local newspaper I thought, 'Well, maybe it's not too late.' So now we're doing it."

The ad was for Elderhostel, a nonprofit organization inspired by the youth hostels and folk schools of Europe. At 300 college campuses in the United States and Canada, men and women over 60 are living in dormitories, taking up to three special one-week classes, and generally having the time of their lives.

"People sign up for as many as 8 to 10 weeks," says Michael Zoob, an Elderhostel vice-president. "We have people who start out in Boston and literally Elderhostel their way across the country. Many people will leave home , take two weeks of Elderhostel at different institutions, visit their grandchildren in another city for two weeks, pick up Elderhostel again, drop out again to visit some national historical parks or something, pick up another week of Elderhostel and then go home."

The Myrvaagneses weren't quite that ambitious. Their first year out they spent one week at Franconia College in New Hampshire. Two years later they tried two weeks at the University of Wisconsin's Madison and Milwaukee campuses, mostly because they wanted to be close to friends and family there.

"But the courses were also good!" Mrs. Myrvaagnes hastens to add.

The University of Wisconsin had a course in photography, a lively discussion course on "What is Genius?," and a music appreciation course. Franconia College offered courses in local history and flora, as well as an oral history program. And in their spare time in New Hampshire the Myrvaagnes went mountain climbing.

Though the latter activity is not exactly typical, Michael Zoob says the people who sign up for the programs are, by and large, a lively group.

"These people know who they are. They're vital, vibrant. They are what I would call independent -- not necessarily independently wealthy, but able to function pretty much on their own, to get around on their own so they don't need specil shepherding."

He says they come from all walks of life. One man was a state supreme court judge. Another, an 80-year-old, had been a wildcat-oil explorer. One woman had worked in a tanning factory and meat packing factory for most of a working life that had started when she was 11 years old. After her husband passed on, her daughter and son-in-law decided she might enjoy a week in the Elderhostel program and paid her way. She says it was one of the most vital and important experiences of her life.

That is the type of experience Martin Knowlton was trying to bring about when he started the program for older students in 1975. That it is definitely meeting a need is shown by the program's astounding growth from 200 participants in 1975 to 13,000 in 1979. This year, Elderhostel expects 20,000, and by 1983 nearly 60,000. The number of colleges participating has increased just as dramatically from 5 in 1975 to over 300 in 1980.

"It's more than just an educational experience," says Mr. Zoob. "it's almost a movement, a phenomenon."

The classes are deliberately not focused on problems of the elderly.

"What the Elderhostelers seem to want are the things that colleges do best, that is courses in the liberal arts and the sciences," says Mr. Zoob. "Other institutions . . . provide support services and activities. What we have to offer that's unique are college courses on college subjects. People say, 'I can get that other stuff elsewhere. What I can't get is a good course in Shakespeare or the history of presidential elections and what they might mean for today.'"

Often a college offers courses special to its own area. One New Hampshire college, for instance, has a course in Shaker music that will include a visit to the Shaker community in Canterbury, New Hampshire. Iowa's Waldorf College has a course on "Norwegian immigrants in the Midwest," and Colorado's Fort Lewis College has a course on "folklore of the Southwest."

Mr. Zoob says these specialized courses can be as much fun to give as they are to take.

"A professor can focus on something he may never have been able to include in his regular course work. Maybe he's always had an interest in the [influence] of baseball in American literature."

More and more colleges, searching for ways to use their facilities more efficiently, are becoming involved in the program, he points out. Since many are open during the summer for anything from soccer camps to cheerleading clinics, 30 or 40 Elderhostel students can often be worked in easily.

"In many ways Elderhostel provides an excellent opportunity for a college to begin to learn about older people -- and whether their special needs are different from those of 'regular students," says Mr. Zoob.

"There's a growing awareness on the part of colleges that here's a whole group of people who are vibrant, vital, alive, and as intellectually inquisitive as any other generation . . . , and colleges have a duty and an obligation to meet their needs."

Most professors find the Elderhostel courses especially invigorating. Amherst College chemistry professor Richard Fink, who taught a course last year, is eager to teach another this year.

"The students were enthusiastic," he says. "They were argumentative in the exciting sense of the word. . . . It's a wonderful age group to have in the classroom because they bring a perception and intelligence that is significantly different from the 18- to 22-year-olds. Discussions took off on their own. . . . It was one of those pleasant classroom experiences where, as a teacher, I learned almost as much as I hope I gave them."

Professor Robert Sweeney, also from Amherst College, taught a basic drawing course.

"[The Elderhostelers] were very sharp, much sharper for beginning students than the people I usually teach in a beginning course. The questions were really quite sophisticated, given their lack of training or exposure. I was really impressed with their ability to deal with the material and not just assimilate it but begin to move with it."

Mr. Zoob says often the people in class are very eager to share their life experiences and interests.

"Several years ago one young man was teaching a course on Irish immigrant history. He was going along very calmly in the classroom, and then realized part way through that he was talkingm to Irish immigrant history; it was sitting there in the classroom. That was a tremendously rewarding experience for him."

Professor Sweeney says with a chuckle that the older students are similar to their younger counterparts in at least one respect.

"Most of these people were in their 60s and 70s, but they assumed the poses I imagine they had when they were young students. Little groups would develop in class -- people who would sit and talk or pass notes, or who would always be on top of everything, always asking questions because it was something they had to do. There was very little difference in the sense between them and some of the very young students I teach here."

Michael Zoob comments, "These people are there because they want to be. They're not paper-chasing or credential-chasing. Their faces aren't buried in a notebook, and when they like what you're doing they'll tell you."

The Elderhostel program, Mr. Zoob emphasizes, is not a social service. Asked what it does for its participants, he asks, "What does college do for people who are 18 to 22? That's what Elderhostel does for older adults. I don't know if it helps them to grow up, if that's what college is supposed to do, but for a lot of people who are totally self-sufficient and interested in a vital life it provides travel, adventure, and intellectual stimulation, which they find rewarding, and at a low cost.

"It means they're going to go to a place and are going to get some decent food -- not the Ritz, but decent meals. There are going to be quality courses taught by regular members of the faculty and some extracurricular activities integrated into the week. There may be incredible individual and geographical differences between . . . Elderhostel [colleges], but a person knows the format they're getting, and they can expect certain things from the fact that it is an Elderhostel program. . . . "

Some people look askance at the thought of dormitory living, but several people who have done so say it's terrific, despite the communal bathrooms. As one cheerfully grandmotherish lady said. "You know, it was kind of fun to live in the dorm reliving our college experience, so to speak."

And the spirit of the program is best typified by another retired man who's not content to sit at home. "This last year I took a course in art, which opened up a new area for me," he said warmly. "I like to feel I can go on having new interests."

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