Never too old to learn
It’s pruning season for rose growers and with 330 bushes in her garden, Rhonda Weston is a busy woman.
But the keen gardener is happy to shelve her secateurs to talk about University of the Third Age (U3A), an organisation she has been active in as a student, tutor and now administrator, since 2004.
She currently chairs the U3A Asia Pacific Alliance.
The name U3A might be a bit grandiose and vaguely hippy, but it is neither of these.
“University” is just a catch-all word for a community of teachers and scholars and the “third age” referred to is the age of active retirement.
Rhonda says people are retiring today with high expectations.
“They want at least 20 years of active retirement,” she says. “They want to be challenged and stimulated.”
The brainchild of French academics, U3A started in Toulouse in 1973 as a summer school run by the university for retirees.
The idea took hold across the world with U3A groups forming on the Sunshine Coast and in Brisbane in 1986.
U3A now claims to be the largest provider of adult education programs for retirees in Queensland.
There is no government funding for the organisation, although some groups are supported by their local council, high school or, in the case of the Sunshine Coast, a university.
Courses include the usual suspects such as languages, history, economics and current affairs.
But the classroom is a far cry from the stuffy halls of high school and no one is handing out detentions for incomplete assignments.
Regular presenter David Parmiter says he does not give lectures, he gives stage performances.
“No one goes to sleep in my lectures,” he says, which include talks on the Viking Empire, Winston Churchill (“where I do not talk about the war?”) and the Six Houses of Shakespeare.
Generally, U3A classes are run over terms which correspond with the dates of school terms, but there are also one-off lectures and social and cultural outings – there is a Sunshine Coast group called Meet Me at the Movies.
The curriculum is also much more diverse than any university handbook.
There is typically a wild kaleidoscope of classes such as bird watching, ukulele, croquet and World War I poetry.
There are music classes, craft classes and classes for gamers.
Mah-jong is the hot ticket right now, according to Brisbane U3A’s Greg Doolan.
When Greg first walked into the Brisbane office of U3A, he nearly turned on his heel and walked out.
“I thought it was full of old farts,” he says. “My wife couldn’t believe I wanted to join.”
But he wanted to master Excel and U3A offered a cheap option.
Fast forward five years and Greg Doolan has conquered more than spreadsheets.
He is the marketing and communications manager for U3A Brisbane and vice-president of U3A Queensland.
In that time, the group has purchased a building in the CBD and grown to become the second largest in Australia, with more than 3500 members.
It is run entirely by volunteers – more than 200 of them – and offers hundreds of classes each term, mostly from its headquarters in Creek St, but also in suburban libraries.
“I’m supposed to be retired,” says Greg, “but I’m too busy to scratch myself.”
The age of active retirement covers a wide span of numbers and can be interpreted broadly.
Some U3A groups require members to have reached 50, but others take a more flexible approach. And you can never be too old.
Norman Holcrombe is 101.
He tutored with U3A until he was 97 but is now taking it easy, attending only an investment group, a current affairs discussion group and a Scrabble class.
Many tutors, like Liz Kennedy, start out as students.
The avid reader and traveller wanted to learn how to use an iPad to store books.
It was a popular class with increasing demand and not enough people to teach.
So after 18 months as a student, Liz moved up to the lectern.
She looks back now and laughs, saying she knew hardly anything when she started.
“How I had the audacity to teach it,” she says. “I am just stunned.”
Liz’s teaching credentials come “courtesy of the University of Life”.
“When I was a girl you left school and went straight into the job your parents had organised for you,” she says.
“We lived next door to a bank manager so I was taken out of school and plonked into a bank, which I hated with a passion.”
Teaching is now a big part of Liz’s life and some terms, she fronts as many as five classes a week.
“I just enjoy the look on their faces when the students get it,” she says.
“You can see the penny drop.”
Like the early Greek lyceums of Aristotle, U3A does not limit itself to the classroom.
A group from Brisbane is planning a walking trip to Japan later this year and another from Logan is visiting China to look at how the organisation runs in that country.
The China trip came about because one of the members travelled to China regularly with his job and knows a lot about the country.
He put together an itinerary and took it to a travel agent to get a deal for the group.
“It’s almost like a research trip,” says Greg Doolan.
Rhonda Weston says U3A is a great way for people who might be recently widowed or moved house in retirement to connect with the community.
“When I was a girl you left school and went straight
into the job your parents had organised for you”
“Some people have told me their U3A classes are the reason they get out of bed in the morning,” she says.
This sentiment is echoed by David Parmiter.
“If I didn’t have this I would sit at home going quietly mad, probably hitting the bottle,” he says of his lecturing role on the Sunshine Coast.
He might be joking, but maybe he is not.
As Greg Doolan snaps shut his diary and prepares for the next of his many appointments that day, he says he hates the word retirement.
He hands over his U3A business card which includes his contact details and a telling quote “You retire from work, not life.”