St. Thomas theology professor David Penchansky took about one second after learning about St. Thomas’ Selim Center for Learning in Later Years to know he wanted to be part of it.

“They put me in the program that very next semester,” he said.

There are several reasons Penchansky wanted to be part of the Selim Center, a desire he has shared with many over the center’s 40-plus-year history. People are drawn to the community outreach program, which “presents educational and cultural programs specifically designed to foster and support lifelong learning” for adults 50 years old and older.

“These adult learners are taking part simply for the joy of learning. It’s the purest form of learning,” Penchansky said. “It’s a pleasure to teach them. There’s no effort in it. They’re engaged, ask questions. They just eat it up. There’s no way someone who’s been teaching wouldn’t jump at the chance to do it.”

Established in 1973 as the Center for Senior Citizens’ Education by economics professor Mo Selim, the center has drawn tens of thousands of people from around the state for classes and to audit undergraduate courses. Recently it expanded its offerings further, while maintaining its core values of lifelong learning and supporting the St. Thomas mission of community engagement.

“In some sense we’re a very well-hidden treasure,” director Jan Viktora said. “I think we’re a real gem of the university.”

Dynamic engagement

With about 2,300 enrollments annually there are plenty who are in on the treasure of the Selim Center. In recent years their experience has been enriched by an increasingly broad set of offerings that have flourished since Viktora started in 2009.

“There was a recipe before that we would do six lectures and three lunches each semester, along with the auditing program, and that was the extent of what we did,” program manager Susan Anderson-Benson said. “People have changed, and how people want to learn has changed. You have to keep changing with the times.”

On top of many registered courses usually broken up into six individual class sessions, plus the undergraduate auditing program, there are many one-day seminars and meals; trips around the state with professors or experts to teach about a given topic or location; and hosted events on campus, like last fall’s sports psychology lesson and a St. Thomas football game. The Selim Center also has started bringing its programming into the community, with sites in Edina, Highland Park and Minneapolis.

Selim Center

Dick Velner (center) and Rodney More fill out paperwork as they wait to sign up for classes offered by the Selim Center. (Photos by Mike Ekern ’02)

“Mo always believed that education should not be limited to the young. Everyone has a right to education,” Viktora said. “That’s what we try to do.”

A majority of that education takes place right at St. Thomas, which opens the campus to groups of learners not typically seen in undergraduate classrooms. Such a clear example of St. Thomas’ mission of community engagement has benefits for everyone involved at the school.

“We want them to know they’re an essential part of the St. Thomas community,” Viktora said of the center’s senior scholars. “Beyond the wealth of experience that comes with having them in class, they also come to concerts, department lectures. They’re the ones that often buy art pieces at showings.

“A couple of years ago we asked how many of our students had spoken with a young person about the value of a St. Thomas education for undergraduate. We had between 47 and 48 percent say they had, and only 11 percent of them were self-reporting alumni of St. Thomas,” Viktora added. “That means we have this huge number of students, whose only classes here have been with the Selim Center, who value it and think it would be a good place for a niece, nephew, grandkid to attend. That’s a benefit to the university overall.”

Welcome classmates

Perhaps an even bigger benefit is to the students already enrolled at St. Thomas who experience the perspective, life experience and knowledge that comes with having senior scholars in class along with them.

“If I could guarantee every class had a senior scholar in it, I would,” sociology and criminal justice professor Buffy Smith said. “When senior scholars share their lived experience in the classroom it creates a richer learning experience, and I learn a lot from the senior scholars. My traditional students and I value the rich and multiple contributions of the senior scholars.”

Whether taking an undergraduate class or – as most senior scholars do – enrolling in specific classes for the center, an $80-per-course flat rate brings a huge level of accessibility. That is all the more important as continued research shows the mental health value of remaining engaged in learning throughout later years.

“We really hope that what they do enables them to engage the world, including here,” Viktora said.

With 41 years and counting under its belt, there is plenty to get excited about in the past. Creating an even better present and future, though, is what the Selim Center is truly about.

“We feel we’re carrying the torch well,” Anderson-Benson said. “We’re excited about where we’re heading.”

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