What a grand time
School was never this much fun before: Children and their grandparents attend a special university together in Wisconsin
MADISON, WIS. — As a new graduate of the University of Wisconsin more than 40 years ago, Sue Stone looked forward to coming back for football games and reunions. But returning to campus with grandchildren, to learn together and share a dorm room? What member of the Class of 1959 could have imagined that?
Yet that is exactly what Mrs. Stone is doing on a hot July Thursday as she and her husband, Tim, and their two 8-year-old grandsons finish a tour of the university art museum and head for a printmaking class. It's all part of an unusual two-day event called Grandparents University, designed to strengthen generational bonds and introduce children to university learning.
The Stones, of Baileys Harbor, Wis., are among nearly 250 people - 116 grandparents and 130 grandchildren ages 7 to 14 - who have come from 15 states for this third annual event. Participants enroll in one of six "majors." They attend 6-1/2 hours of classes, then "graduate" with a "degree."
Explaining the appeal, Mrs. Stone says, "It gives us a chance to be with the grandchildren and show them what the university means to us. And we're all learning something together."
As families separated by miles and busy schedules seek new ways to connect, organized intergenerational activities are gaining popularity. Tour companies offer trips for grandparents and grandchildren, a category known as "grand travel." Elderhostel also features university-based programs that connect young and old.
But Grandparents University (www.uwalumni.com/grandparents) represents a different approach, both in its brevity and in the variety of subjects offered. This year's list includes archaeology, biotechnology, fine arts, veterinary medicine, food science, and adventure learning. Organizers select subjects that interest young people. They also choose professors experienced in teaching children and adults.
The experience exposes children to fields of study that might spark career choices, says Bonnie Hutchins, co-coordinator. It also lets them see grandparents as rounded individuals.
"There's so much wisdom, so much oral history in our older adults," says Paula Bonner, president of the Wisconsin Alumni Association, which sponsors the program with the University of Wisconsin Extension Family Living Programs. "Their relationship with their grandparents will be different forever."
For grandparents, she finds, the event heightens feelings of usefulness. "They're reenergized by being back on the campus. They can imagine being a college student again. And with the quality of the faculty, both the children and the grandparents are learning something new."
Two-thirds of grandparents are alumni, most from Wisconsin. Grandchildren live as far away as Texas, Colorado, California, Florida, and New York. Tuition costs $130 per adult and $70 per child. Dormitories and meals add $46 for adults and $23 for children.
After a lively opening session on the wonders of physics, followed by lunch in a dining hall, participants fan out across campus to their chosen majors. Dressed in khakis and Bermudas, many sport gray T-shirts with red letters reading "2003 Grandparents University."
Students majoring in bioengineering learn to extract DNA from wheat germ. In a food science laboratory, both generations sip colored liquid from tiny cups. "You're looking for the one that's sweeter or sourer," Prof. Barbara Ingham says.
Later they will use math to calculate the chocolate chips in cookies.
In a fine-arts class, the Stones listen as artist Natalie Settles outlines the history of printmaking, then hands out tools. Andrew Stone carves a W for Wisconsin. Others draw tulips, birds, a wolf.
Over in Gym 6, Tim Gattenby, a physical-education instructor, explains the fine points of archery. Dressed in a pre-1800s frontiersman outfit with caribou boots, he teaches students how to pop a balloon with a bow and arrow. "I don't want you to shoot at the balloon," he says. "Shoot at a dot the size of a pea. Not even at the dot - at the center of the center of the dot."
Later, the group moves to the Stock Pavilion to test their skills. A grandmother's arrow misses the balloon, but as it hits the board - thunk - her grandson's voice fills with pride. "Grandma!" he exclaims. "I didn't know you could do that!" Neither, perhaps, did she.
Not all bonding takes place in classes. At a Thursday evening "tailgate supper" in the Kohl Center, the two generations picnic on hamburgers and - this being Wisconsin - bratwurst.
Afterward, in the dormitory lounge at Sellery Hall, about 50 people watch a Harry Potter movie. Two girls play "Chopsticks" on a grand piano. A grandfather and grandson compete in a game of Battleship. And a silver-haired couple and four boys play cards. As the boys' spirited voices rise, the grandfather says gently, "Shhh, shhh, keep it down."
Elsewhere in the room, roles reverse. "The bus leaves at 10:30 sharp, so you don't want to be late," a boy tells his grandfather.
"OK," he replies obediently.
For Marion Hall of Wausau, Wis., and her granddaughter, Becky Rasmussen, 11, the game of the evening is Yahtzee. The two have spent the day studying archaeology.
"She is really into science," Mrs. Hall says. Noting that Becky is in a program for gifted and talented students at school, she adds, "I would guess a lot of these children are. Grandparents are trying to keep them involved in quality things so they don't get bored."
That kind of interest impresses professors. "Those who haven't participated before experience some degree of surprise at how quickly the children catch on," says Sarah Schutt, co-coordinator. "They don't need to dumb down the curriculum, just use different vocabulary that the kids will understand."
For some alumni, Grandparents University offers a chance to pass along family lore. The Stones, both graduates here, spend Thursday evening strolling around campus, telling stories to grandsons Andrew Stone and Spencer Godfrey.
"We took metal trays from the dining hall and slid down Bascom Hill in the winter," Mrs. Stone recalls. She also tells the boys that their great-grandmother, a student in the late 1920s, walked up and down Bascom Hill in high heels. "That's what they wore then."
For Judy and Roger Hansen of Black River Falls, Wis., and their grandsons Marcus and Ben Sherman, the summer evening provides a perfect time to walk to the state Capitol, its illuminated dome towering majestically over the city.
Mr. Hansen and Ben are majoring in fine arts, while Mrs. Hansen and Marcus are studying anthropology. "It's neat," says 9-year-old Marcus. "You get to learn about bones - how you can tell the difference between animal and human bones, male and female, and children."
An enthusiastic Mrs. Hansen adds, "There aren't many opportunities for grandparents and grandchildren to learn together. They go to school every day, but we don't go to school anymore."
About 60 percent of families stay in a dormitory, showing children another facet of college life and reminding grandparents of their own student days. "It's déjà vu for me, like 40 years ago," says Gale Kolbet of Iowa City, Iowa, who is here with 8-year-old Sam Schutt. "It's not bad at all."
Other families prefer the comfort of nearby hotels.
Friday morning, the most adventurous members of the group tackle a ropes course and a climbing wall. Others stretch in a modern dance class, where generations join hands for varied movements. In a music class, students hold drums of different sizes and shapes.
"I'll play something on my drum, and you guys will play it back to me - sort of a drumming conversation," says Thomas Ross, a teaching assistant. "If I play four, you play four. OK, here we go." The air vibrates.
Those in veterinary medicine gather around a horse named Caramel. "Where do you think the heart is?" Prof. Chuck Henrikson asks. "He's not wearing it on his sleeve." The group laughs.
Impressed by the success of Wisconsin's venture, other universities are considering similar events. Oklahoma State University in Stillwater held its first Grandparents University last month, for members of the alumni association. Its 91 participants studied architecture, broadcasting, entomology, and local government.
"We've had so many letters of appreciation, both to the faculty and the alumni association, thanking us for making this possible," says Anne Scott, program director.
Organizers in Madison measure success in part by the returning families. Nearly 60 percent of grandparents and half the grandchildren have attended before. One woman, whose name tag reads Joyce "Momma" Baer, brought her oldest grandson last year and has come back with his brother, Tyler. "When we're one on one, they have to talk to me," Mrs. Baer, of Marshall, Wis., says with a laugh. "Little boys, as they grow older, get monosyllabic."
The younger generation, too, savors one-on-one connections. "I like it that I can get away with my grandmother and not have all the other little grandkids around," says Brandon Stebbins. Being here has also given him a new perspective on education. "You think that college is going to be real hard and boring, but after you see what it is, it really changes your mind."
Returnees Tom and Nancy Mohs of Madison have brought four grandchildren. "It gives us just a wonderful time with them - good, quality time alone with the grandchildren," he says. "Also, it gives the parents a vacation."
In a wired age, parents are never far away. After lunch on Friday, a girl stands outside the dining hall, cellphone clamped to her ear, talking to Mom. "We got to look in a telescope, and I got to see a horse named Caramel," she says happily. Then she asks, "Where are you guys? I'm coming home about 3." She rejoins Grandma to head for graduation.
Spirits run high in the auditorium as children cross the stage, shake hands with their professor, and accept diplomas for themselves and their grandparents. Cameras click. The audience claps. Then lights dim and a slide show recaps activities of the past two days. For a finale, young and old blend voices in a beloved campus song, "Varsity." "U-rah-rah, Wisconsin," they chant.
Afterward, the summer air echoes with fond goodbyes.
Bonnie Rantala of Iron River, Wis., who came with three sisters and a total of five grandchildren, sums up the enduring appeal.
"It's creating memories," she says. "Memories are more valuable than anything, aren't they?"