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Renesan: For the love of lifelong learning

At Renesan, participants can learn about topics ranging from Woodstock to authenticating prints by Salvador Dali to the historic hotels of Las Vegas, N.M.

SANTA FE, N.M. — Not long after I retired, I wrote on Facebook that I was reading “The Brothers Karamazov” for a class I was taking.

One former colleague expressed astonishment: What? I retired to do that?

But I discovered I was not alone in wanting to spend time analyzing a 776-page book by a dead Russian author. Some six dozen people or so were in the room with me, meeting for two hours at a time.

The Renesan Institute for Lifelong Learning was created for people like us. It was founded in 1995 by people familiar with the Elderhostel (now Road Scholar) programs offered in Santa Fe and decided they wanted to develop something similar for residents. The organization’s volunteer board decided to focus on academics and avoid duplicating courses available elsewhere – no cooking or Zumba classes, for instance. It has been offering classes since then for people interested in lifelong learning.

Margie McGregor is one of them. “It’s a good way to revisit or learn about things I had been interested in years ago or had fallen by the wayside,” she said.

She moved here from Pittsburgh 15 years ago – her career included serving as a bank vice president in public relations, an editor for a magazine and national advertising agency, a staffer in the U.S. Senate, a political consultant, and head of a corporate foundation “giving away someone else’s money.”

After learning about Renesan from a newspaper article, she signed up for her first class (it focused on classical music) and has been enrolling ever since, mostly in music and history classes. Now she serves as Renesan’s vice president and marketing chair.

Last spring, Renesan offered 63 courses and filled 2,285 seats in its classrooms, which are located in St. John’s United Methodist Church, 1200 Old Pecos Trail. Since some people take more than one class, this represents some 800 or more individuals who take Renesan offerings each semester.

The subject offerings fall under these categories: current events, cultural studies, history, literature, music, performing arts, philosophy and science.

Specific courses range from the works of Euripides to Kurt Vonnegut, world music to orchestral jazz, prescription drug finance to the space race, druids to Civil War black soldiers – and so much more.

Each two-hour session costs $15, and classes may have anywhere from one to five or more sessions. So, for instance, if you sign up for a four-session course, you pay $60. People of limited income can apply for a scholarship to cover their costs – it tops out at $60 per semester, according to McGregor. However, she added, they haven’t gotten many requests for such aid.

Renesan also offers a lecture series on Thursdays from 1-3 p.m. Most times, advance registration is not necessary and you can pay the $15 at the door.

This fall, you can learn about how to authenticate prints by Salvador Dali, presented by a senior fine arts appraiser (Bernard Ewell), or hear about the U.N. Criminal Tribunal’s trial of the masterminds of the Rwandan Genocide, presented by a senior trial attorney at that trial (Barbara Mulvaney). Or, on a lighter note, you can celebrate the golden anniversary of Woodstock.

Field trips

Renesan also sponsors trips to explore things such as historic hotels in Las Vegas, New Mexico, the National Weather Service Office in Albuquerque, and the stars (from an amateur astronomer’s home in Eldorado).

“The trips filled up the first day (of enrollment),” said Kristin Pulatie, Renesan’s new director.

“The literature classes always do well,” said McGregor, when asked about the most popular topics. “There’s a lot of interest in the Shakespeare things we do.”

And one year, they even had 90 people sign up for a quantum physics class. “They all hung in there,” McGregor said.

Hot Spots, which focuses on the United States and its international relations, was a popular class taught for many years by Bill Stewart, she said. He was an international journalist and U.S. Foreign Service officer.

The class’s popularity continues, now taught by Todd Greentree, also a former Foreign Service officer, who sometimes offers personal observations of international players that he encountered while serving in postings from El Salvador to Afghanistan.

The quality of the instructors helps keep people signing up. Many have taught at the college level and/or have been actively involved in the subjects they teach. I was surprised to learn, for instance, that Robert Glick, who taught the class I took on “The Brothers Karamazov,” and whom I knew as a president and CEO of the St. Vincent Hospital Foundation, had a career teaching literature.

With a background of teaching finance and accounting in business schools, Bruce Johnson has taught subjects from jazz (an avocation) to predictive analytics. One of the joys of teaching

One of the joys of teaching Renesan classes is the caliber of students, he said. In his predictive analytics class, he had professional mathematicians and statisticians. His jazz classes have drawn professional musicians, he said. Some of the students know more about the topic than he does, he said, noting that he welcomes their contributions.

Instructors do get paid, starting with a base pay of $100 for a two-hour session, with the pay rising with the number of sessions and the number of students, he said. “We do struggle to find faculty in the sciences” who can teach to a more general audience, he added.

Currently president of Renesan, Johnson said he moved to Santa Fe four years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And since he took up residence here some time before his wife was able to join him, he said, he felt a little lonely and started taking Renesan classes to meet people and get involved in the community.

A social aspect

And that social aspect of Renesan, he said, is an important element of its attraction. “There’s a sense of being able to come together with people who share an interest in learning, to be able to debate in a civil manner the important issues of the day,” Johnson said. “It’s a community of people with interesting backgrounds who are sharing information and sharing insights.”

Renesan doesn’t have statistics on demographics of its students, but most appear to be retired – after all, classes are held in the daytime on weekdays – and most likely had attended college. There has been some discussion about branching out to night classes, but no action has been taken yet, Johnson said.

And information isn’t compiled on how far students come to attend the classes – many come from the Eldorado ZIP code, and some come in from Los Alamos, according to McGregor.

Some come even farther. In a film discussion class I took, one participant introduced herself as living in Abiquiu Lake. She really loves films, she said, so she drives down to Santa Fe to see them and discuss them.

Now that’s dedication.

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