Four sons and Elon University.
That’s what Cynthia Ward had left after her husband Max, a former trustee at Elon University, died. Following her loss, Ward knew she had to continue giving back to the community that had meant so much to her husband.
Together with a small team of faculty and community members, Ward helped welcome the Life@Elon program to the community. The program offers non-credit learning opportunities to people age 50 and older.
The importance of providing a way for older members to stay mentally engaged is something Ward has been preaching throughout her entire life.
“I’ve said all along that continuing education doesn’t need to be in a formal classroom, it can take another form,” Ward said. “Even with it being outside of the formal classroom, education can be diverse, interesting
With this mindset of creating a diverse, interesting and challenging learning environment, Life@Elon hosted its first two classes in fall 2011. This first semester was considered to be a huge success with almost 100 participants in each class.
“I was so privileged to be a part of the first Life@Elon class here at Elon,” Ward said. “It involved so many of the leaders in the Alamance community and brought together such a wide variety of professions and interests.”
Since then, the classes and the senior student body have continued to grow each year. Now in its eighth year, there are four Life@Elon classes with a total of 491 participants.
These weekly classes cover a range of topics, many of which have been suggested by students within the class.
At first, Ward was unsure if some of these topics would interest her at all.
“When I read about the classes offered, the very programs I thought were going to be questionable as far as my own interests were the ones that blew me away,” Ward said. “Now, I don’t even look anymore. I just come. There will always be something that I have not experienced, that I have not seen, that I have not known.”
The constant surprise in the classroom is one of the main reasons why Ward loves the program.
“The way the program is set up makes the classes so inclusive that we just continue to have this innate curiosity about what’s next,” Ward said. “About how we can expand our horizons and about how we can have a greater world view of things.”
Program Coordinator Kathryn Bennett is in charge of running the Life@Elon program and keeping each next class as interesting as the last.
The task hasn’t been too difficult for Bennett because of the mentality many of the members bring to class.
“These people just have that desire for lifelong learning,” Bennett said. “They want to keep learning, they want to keep finding out what was going on.”
This desire is what makes working with the Life@Elon members so enjoyable for Bennett.
“They are so grateful to be here and they really get that what Elon is doing is worthwhile and that Elon students are incredible and the future of the world is in good hands,” Bennett said.
While the future of the world may be in the hands of Elon students, the future of Life@Elon is in Bennett’s hands. Currently, the program is in the midst of a strategic planning process, the goal of which is to find new ways to continue enhancing the program.
The team behind the program is discussing the possibility of creating more special interest groups. This semester, Life@Elon is running three special interest groups, the Book Club, the Wine Tasting Club and the No Boat Yacht Club. Bennett would love to increase this number in order to give more Life@Elon members to explore their interests.
All of these improvements to the Life@Elon program come at the request of dozens of community members currently enrolled that want to see the program grow.
But the program isn’t the only thing that has been changing.
By working with some of the same community members throughout the last few years, Bennett has seen a change in the way many of the members view life.
“Before this program I was so tired of hearing people use the phrase, ‘Kids these days’ ... What has been so incredible is seeing the community members meet students and learn that ‘kids these days’ are incredible,” Bennett said. “It is so nice to see the Life@Elon members grow to appreciate the knowledge and the skills Elon students have. I absolutely love bringing the generations together.”
One of the Elon students Life@Elon members interact with the most is one of Bennett’s student coordinators, senior Nicole Galante.
While she spends most of her time organizing the classes, the interactions Galante has had with these senior citizens have been inspiring.
“They have taught me that the key to staying young is to stay young in the mind,” Galante said. “Aging is so scary for young people and it has always been one of my fears, but then I see more of these people who are in their 70s and 80s and they are the most interesting and active people I’ve ever met.”
Ward, who will be celebrating her 87th birthday later this year, practices this active lifestyle every day and is looking forward to attending Life@Elon classes for as long as she can.
As Ward keeps herself busy balancing class, bible-study and Sunday school, a common conversation she has with those she is with, is that she wants her legacy at Elon to be.
“People always say I should think about writing a book,” Ward said. “My answer to that is I’m too busy living, I have class to go to.”