IT'S a typical day in the classroom at Prince William Sound Community College in mountain-rimmed Valdez, Alaska's Little Switzerland. The room is crowded with eager learners. Soon they will be hiking off on a field trip to Prince William Sound to have a look at its fjords and Columbia Glacier, the second largest in Alaska (see map on Page B8.) Other students may be wildlife-watching or studying the culture of a historic gold-mining town. Tonight all the students will bed down in a dormitory after eating in the college cafeteria on this beautiful south central Alaska campus.
But there's a special twist to this ``typical college scene.'' All of the students are over 60 years old. They're participants in Elderhostel, an international network of campuses and historic sites, in which older adults take college-level courses for a week at a time. These seniors are combining travel with mental aerobics in one of the most awesome settings in the world.
The Elderhostel program was conceived by Marty Knowlton, a well-known social activist, philosopher, editor, and world traveler. Taking a break from his work on the faculty at the University of New Hampshire, he happened to be on a backpacking trip through Europe when, after noticing the numerous youth hostels, he was inspired to start up Elderhostel.
Mr. Knowlton believed that exposure to the liberal arts and sciences in a residential campus setting would give older adults the intellectual stimulation and meaningful activity they are often searching for.
In 1974 five New Hampshire institutions offered programs to 200 pioneer Elderhostelers. ``Since then the movement has taken off like videocassettes,'' Knowlton says. Last year over 122,000 hostelers enrolled in programs in all 50 states, including Alaska.
What is an Elderhostel program like?
For one week, people are offered three courses that meet for 1 to 1 hours each day. Teachers at the host college as well as established authorities in their field teach classes. There are no entrance requirements, no tests or grades, and no talking down to the Elderhostelers.
Accommodations are usually in dormitories or conference centers, but occasionally, as in some of the Alaska programs, they're housed in historic hotels. The cost in Alaska is $260 per week, which includes registration, six nights' accommodations and meals, and five days of classes. Transportation costs to Alaska are the only extra.
Classes are about as eclectic as you can get, but they concentrate on regional material. For instance, ``Wildlife of Kenai Fjords National Park'' is a course as varied as the park's landscape. It surveys the wildlife, including the inch-long iceworm, 80-ton humpback whales, sea birds, and mountain goats - all at Alaska Vocational Technical Center, 120 miles southeast of Anchorage, in Seward.
If you've ever wanted to touch a glacier, you can do it in Seward, established in 1903 as the terminus for the Alaska Railroad. Seward keeps its small-town charm while offering such sports as sailing, fishing, glacier hiking, and beachcombing. It's also the gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park and Caines Head Recreational area. Courses are offered at Meier Lake Conference Center on the Kenai Peninsula.
The University of Alaska at Fairbanks has a course on ``Gold Fever,'' a look at gold and man's fascination with the metal. The course covers Alaskan mining methods, problems of mining in the north, and Alaskan gold rushes.
The University of Alaska lures students with its ``Flora and Fauna of Southeast Alaska Rain Forest,'' where students explore Juneau's lush rain forest and learn to identify trees, plants, and wild edibles as well as animal life.
Do you always have to attend the classes? No. Hostelers can attend as many or as few of the activities as they wish. There are no prerequisites. A spirited hosteler from Hartford, Conn., sums it up: ``You don't feel obligated to go to anything, but you want to go to everything.''
Besides the appeal of stimulating course offerings, many Elderhostelers are drawn by the charms of nearby tourist sights - especially in Alaska. For example, you can tramp through the second-largest national forest, the Chugach, near another branch of Prince William Sound Community College in Cordova. This region encompasses some of the most dramatic country in North America. It also offers a variety of recreational opportunities, such as observing wildlife, and, of course, fishing for silver salmon.
Sheldon Jackson College is in Sitka's island-dotted harbor with its rugged mountain backdrop. Once the capital of Russian America, Sitka owes much to its Russian past. Some of the native American Tlingits who intermingled with their Russian ancestors continued keep their heritage alive by observing old customs today. Onion-domed churches mingle with totem poles. The study of Sitka's history becomes an adventure.
All kinds of people from all over the globe come to Elderhostel. You may meet an engineer from Iowa, an automobile dealer from Pennsylvania, or a librarian from Alaska. Sixty percent of the Elderhostelers have college degrees; 30 percent are former educators; but all ``students'' are treated as equals.
If you go
Further information about programs in Alaska is available by contacting Elderhostel, 80 Boylston St., Boston, MA or call (617) 426-7788.