Currents Magazine - Fall 2005 > Back Issues > Currents Magazine - Fall 2004 > Elderhostel
Story by: Staff Writer
“Learning shouldn't stop when you're 23 years old."
James Erickson, retired director of continuing education at Winona State University, strongly believes this is true. Erickson spent 22 years making sure there was always an opportunity for learning at WSU at any age.
"I planned off-campus programs, for credit, with school districts and different businesses throughout the region," said Erickson.
During those years, he introduced the community of Winona to a new form of life-long learning called Elderhostel.
"Elderhostel fit in nicely with what I was doing in continuing education," said Erickson.
Elderhostel is a not-for-profit organization which provides older adults with learning experiences at an affordable cost. It is America's first travel organization for adults 55 and over. The organization offers more than 10,000 programs a year in approximately 90 countries around the world, and nearly 200,000 older adults take part each year. For example, a person can learn about the ecology of the Everglades or take a more hands-on approach to learning by conducting wildlife or marine research to protect endangered species. However, the Elderhostel program started out on a much smaller scale.
The program began in 1975, when two men in New Hampshire decided it was time to offer older adults who traveled the same type of convenient lodging youth hostels provide for young adults. From that concept, Elderhostels were formed and began to expand from the East coast westward.
Elderhostels were first offered in Minnesota in 1978. Erickson learned about the concept after attending a conference about the program.
"After looking at its potential, I found it interesting to be able to create an educational experience for older adults through a one-week program," said Erickson.
In the summer of 1979, Erickson organized the first Elderhostel at Winona State University. The week-long program was full, taking in 40 people from a Sunday night to a Saturday morning. The participants stayed in WSU residence hall rooms, participated in different classes throughout the week, and enjoyed a couple of evening socials.
The class topics ranged from the arts to the sciences. The Elderhostelers went to class three times a day, and each class was an hour and one-half long, totaling about 25 hours of class time throughout the week.
"There were no tests or papers and you did not have to account for what you learned," said Erickson. "It's an extremely ideal learning environment. They could just sit there and soak-up information like a sponge."
At Winona State, two professors came back year after year to share their knowledge. Dr. Cal Fremling, retired professor of biology at WSU, taught a different Mississippi River course every summer. Dr. John Donovan, professor of geology at WSU, taught different courses on the production of petroleum and drilling for fuels.
"I don't think we ever offered the exact same course twice," said Erickson. "People could attend more than once and not have the same classes."
Erickson believes Elderhostel is vitally important to Winona State and the community. For 25 years, it has provided continuing education for a community of learners not often thought of as university students.
“The satisfaction, for me, came when people said they would have never done this type of activity if it weren’t for Elderhostel,” said Erickson. “I have been told by many participants that they would never have learned so much if it weren't for this program.”
The program at WSU gradually expanded and evolved into what Elderhostel is today. Three, and sometimes four, week-long programs are offered throughout the year. Some of the classes have moved off campus, to locations such as Lanesboro and Wabasha, so participants can get a more hands-on approach to learning, and the Elderhostelers now bunk in area hotels. Since Erickson's retirement, Pauline Christensen, Learning Club coordinator, has taken over the program. Although, Erickson's passion for Elderhostel keeps him involved.
“By bringing people from across the country to Winona State, the Elderhostel programs show the older adults that a university environment isn’t scary,” said Erickson. "This can change their outlook towards education and the university structure.”
Elderhostel promotes the value of higher education and the importance of learning at any age. This can allow Winona State University to continue to live out its mission to provide a distinctive life-long learning environment by responding to the educational needs of the region.
“Learning needs to be an active part of an institution,” said Erickson. "Your resources have to be provided to and shared with all ages."
Photo Caption: An Elderhostel class on a field trip tours the locks on the Trempealeau Dam south of Winona. The Mississippi River Valley offers a wide variety of learning experiences for Elderhostel participants.
(Caption at End): “Learning needs to be an active part of an institution,” said Erickson. "Your resources have to be provided to and shared with all ages."
Last Modified: Thursday, December 02, 2004 12:04 by Rhone Richard