Editor’s note: With Virginia Tech Giving Day 2023 beginning at noon Feb. 15, Virginia Tech is featuring a series of stories highlighting the impact of philanthropy.

Jane Goette still vividly remembers the first Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI) at Virginia Tech class she attended nearly a decade ago.

“I felt like my brain had been sleeping and suddenly it was awakened,” she said.

The former teacher and longtime Blacksburg resident continues to take two to three classes each term and also volunteers as an instructor, including a session this spring on Frederick Douglass.

“I’ve taught all my life. For LLI, I can teach things that I’m absolutely passionate about,” she said. “You are walking into a classroom and nobody has to be there — nobody is in that class to get a check mark or meet a requirement. They are there because they’re interested in your subject matter. It’s highly rewarding and reaffirms every good thing you ever felt about teaching. It’s a real boost.”

A unique collaboration between the community and the university, the institute is a member-driven, volunteer organization that draws on the wealth of academic and community resources in the New River Valley and beyond to provide intellectual, cultural, and social experiences for curious adults 50 and older. Registration for the spring term started Feb. 6, with classes beginning the week of Feb. 20. More than 30 courses on a wide variety of topics — including literature, foreign policy, painting, and cooking — will be offered as well as several field trips.

Jerry Niles, who started the institute in 2015 with Pat Hyer, associate provost emerita, said engaging the mind and building connections are essential to healthy aging. That’s something the dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and former interim vice president for outreach and international affairs has become a bit of an expert on since retiring. He even teaches an LLI class called “Creating Your Plan for Aging in Place.”

“There’s incredible power in connection,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for aging couples to do something together that they can share, it’s an opportunity for single individuals to make connections with others, and it’s an opportunity for continued cognitive growth for everyone.” 

LLI members bring lifetimes of experience and their own expertise in various disciplines. Those perspectives come together in the classroom, sparking a fun and engaging experience not only for the students but for the instructors as well.

Ask Britton Gildersleeve. After moving from Oklahoma to Blacksburg about six years ago, she joined LLI and volunteered to teach classes on mysteries and poetry.

“I honestly thought I’d get folks who didn’t like poetry,” Gildersleeve said. “Instead, I got closet poetry lovers, retired teachers, a historian, musicians, and a couple university scholars.”

And that diverse group turned into an enduring network of friends.

“Making friends when you’re older, especially if you move, is hard. You need shared experiences and/or shared interests. LLI gives you shared interests and a place to talk about them, and as time goes on, those shared interests turn into shared experiences,” she said.

When her husband died last May, she had people to lean on. “At Christmas, I threw a holiday tea as a way to deal with the first Christmas without my husband. All but one person there was from LLI. I felt really fortunate to have these new friends — people who had let me into their lives. That’s what LLI can do.”

Three men standing together and smiling
"The university’s walls have to be permeable. Every time an LLI member takes a class with a Virginia Tech instructor, that person understands more deeply what the university contributes to this community and society in general," said Jerry Niles (at right), who helped start the institute in 2015. Also pictured are Mike Kelly (at left), dean emeritus of the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and Terry Wildman, professor emeritus of learning sciences and technology. Photo courtesy of Peter Magolda.

Supporting the institute also helps link the university to an important part of the community.

“I believe in the land-grant mission unconditionally. The university’s walls have to be permeable. Every time an LLI member takes a class with a Virginia Tech instructor, that person understands more deeply what the university contributes to this community and society in general,” Niles said.

Jeanette Cooper, assistant director of Continuing and Professional Education, said that since the institute’s start, it has built a vibrant learning community for older adults.

“LLI is a wonderful example of how the university continues to fulfill its engagement mission. By tapping into the abundant resources of our region and the university, LLI is able to bring unique learning opportunities and activities to its members that ultimately help build community,” Cooper said.

Niles agreed that the partnership between the university and the community is integral to LLI’s success. He said it first emerged from the support and vision of Susan E. Short, associate vice president for engagement in Outreach and International Affairs. While the institute’s foundation relies on a team of about 125 volunteers giving their time and expertise, Continuing and Professional Education, which is part of Outreach and International Affairs, provides the logistical support.

Otherwise, the institute is financially self-supporting through membership fees and class registrations. Cooper said the institute also gets support through business and community sponsorships and individual donations — including during this year’s Giving Day on Feb. 15-16.

The large volunteer base helps offset costs, but the institute is trying to build a more sustainable base and get more permanent staff. “Our dream is to have a paid executive director, and that would lay the foundation for the long term,” Niles said.

In the meantime, hundreds of members are rekindling their joy of learning and the enhanced quality of life the institute brings to the community.

Goette said after raising her children and working in Blacksburg for many years, LLI contributed greatly to making the town an ideal place to stay after retirement.

“Having LLI magically appear in this community was a pot of gold. It was the reward at the end of the rainbow.”

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