Lessons in Lifelong Learning
By Ben Weststrate (HBA ’08 INNIS) with Mojan Naisan Samani (HBSc ’15 INNIS) and Nic Weststrate
com · mu · ni · ty – Ask anyone at Innis what makes our College unique and the word community will invariably come up. The Innisian sense of community can be described as tight-knit, friendly, and familiar. Innis is a local campus hub, around which numerous aspects of academic and student life revolve. Our community is an open and highly interconnected one, linking campus life to myriad groups across the city.
Perhaps no other constituent reflects our diverse community better than Later Life Learning (LLL). To the reader who is unfamiliar with this organization, LLL is a non-profit educational program for retired individuals, whose total membership is approximately 1400. In the Fall and Winter semesters, members register for 10-week lecture series that are held in the Innis Town Hall. Program topics are as varied as they are instructive, ranging from Toronto: Made for the 21st Century, by former Toronto Mayor David Crombie, to Galileo’s Legacies, by renowned astronomer, Dr. John R. Percy. The scholastic quality of the program is complemented by an enthusiastic sociability and pride of association. By extension, Innis College serves as a weekly gathering point for friends, under mutually-held values of intellectual challenge and lifelong learning. This has been the case for over three decades.
In light of the integral role that LLL plays in the Innis community, we sat down with two (non-LLL) members of the College community to reflect upon the impact of, and the possibilities for, LLL engagement at Innis. Recent Innis graduate, Mojan Naisani Samani, is a Psychology Specialist, the outgoing President of the Innis Residence Council, and a Mentee in the inaugural Innis Mentorship Program. Friend of the College, Nic Weststrate, is a PhD candidate in the Department of Applied Psychology & Human Development at nearby OISE, and he is Mojan’s Mentor in the aforementioned Mentorship Program.
Q1. How does Later Life Learning impact Innis College students?
[Mojan] Later Life Learning is a huge part of Innis College, and has had a very positive impact on the students. LLL has worked in collaboration with the student body and the administration to help make necessary changes for many years, including one of the largest and most recent initiatives, the Innis Town Hall renovation, which has provided a better classroom for students and a great gathering point for events and film screenings. Even more, LLL has been a huge supporter of Innis College students, with an endowment that gives out countless of scholarships to the students every year that encourages and recognizes all of their hard work.
[aside] Established in 1984, the Later Life Learning Scholarship has grown into an endowed fund with a value exceeding one million dollars. In recent years, this fund has awarded over 70 scholarships to Innis College students on the basis of academic merit, with a subset of these awards (LLL OSOTF Scholarships) factoring in student financial need.
[Nic] As Mojan pointed out, the LLL community has tangibly impacted student lives through their inspired advocacy and generous financial support. To further the point, I would imagine that LLL’s impact extends beyond concrete acts of kindness. Through formal and informal interaction with LLL members, the potential for co-curricular learning is astounding. As change-agents and financial donors, the LLL collective has demonstrated to Innis students the spirit of community, the benefits of reciprocity, and the importance of thinking beyond oneself. This just scratches the surface of what can be learned through meaningful intergenerational engagement! I am completely energized to be having this discussion here!
Q2. In more intangible terms, how does LLL impact the Innis community and the culture around the College?
[Mojan] LLL has a huge presence within the College that is not only seen through sharing spaces within our buildings, but also through their participation alongside students at College events and screenings. In my opinion, this prominence certainly gives students much to think about. The conversations that are had between LLL members and students span a wide range of topics and beliefs that are not discussed among most undergrads. This exposes Innis students to new perspectives that can be hard to find within classroom walls.
Because LLL members and Innis students are learning in the same spaces, we students are reminded that learning never ends, and just how important it is to have diversity within higher education. It’s fantastic to walk around our College and see such diverse groups of people, both in terms of cultures and life stages. This really adds to the university atmosphere. The success of LLL to date, in terms of size and longevity, and how integral it is to the Innis community as a whole, stands to show just how important the program is to both the College and the students within it.
[Nic] I am very interested in what Mojan has said about spontaneous conversations with members of the LLL community. I wonder about how these interactions impact students from a social and emotional standpoint. Mojan, do you have a memory of a particularly impactful conversation with an LLL member that you might be willing to share?
[Mojan] Sure! This past year I was at a reception for the 50th Anniversary of Innis along with many of my peers, LLL members, and College staff and faculty. During the reception, I got to talking with one LLL member, who had also attended U of T. She asked me about my studies and career path. We began talking about the current education system and the changes that are coming with it, such as online classes. Soon we were discussing what kind of educational changes we would like to see. She expressed that my vision for the future of the University was, in fact, very similar to how U of T was while she was getting her degree. Previously, I had never had the opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of different educational structures with someone who had a firsthand perspective on what those alternatives were really like. It was one of the most interesting and thought provoking conversations I had had in quite some time. I came away from it having learned a great deal, but also hungry to hear more firsthand stories. The ability to hear about someone’s personal experiences, ask questions, and share my own ideas and opinions, definitely beats reading a summary from a textbook chapter.
[Nic] Thank you for sharing that story, Mojan. You’ve painted a very vivid picture of your exchange–it’s almost as if I could see your mind expanding during that conversation! Warning: I know that feeling, and it’s addictive!
Q3. As Psychology students, how does this conversation relate to your academic interests and your personal values?
[Mojan] I think this conversation is a very important one to have, specifically within the university setting. I am sure Nic would agree. I have previously worked in an Adult Development Lab in the Department of Psychology. It was eye-opening to learn what a great divide exists between people in different life stages, and the uninformed views and prejudices that many people have regarding older adults. I think LLL is one of the only groups on campus to actively break down the stereotypes, through leading by example. As a student, witnessing these common misconceptions being proven wrong in real life, rather than being told about it in a classroom, is an amazing experience.
It is important that we discuss and reflect upon the significance of such groups as LLL within our community. I believe that, by having conversations like the one we are having now, some necessary light can be shed on how different groups can affect, not only the people within them, but those who interact with them.
Academically, I aspire to become a professor. To see such passion for learning from LLL has been very inspiring for me. I hope to be able to inspire others to want to learn as much as LLL members do, and I hope to be in their very shoes some day.
[Nic] As a PhD student in the area of lifespan developmental psychology, this topic is incredibly important to me. Groups like LLL are totally obliterating the harmful stereotypes associated with aging. We are witnessing social change in real time! Rather than perpetuating the stereotype that retired adults are idle, resigned, and disinterested, LLL shows younger people just how busy, engaged, and thirsty for learning older adults can be! Which is exactly LLL’s mission–to promote lifelong learning.
I wonder if the members of LLL realize they are dramatically changing young people’s attitudes every time they enter Innis College? The future of our aging population hinges on this type of attitudinal change, otherwise, financial resources, human capital, and other forms of support may be difficult to broker in our time of need.
Now, with all of this said, intergenerational engagement is not a means to another end, it is, of course, an end in itself. One of the goals of my fledging research program is to promote happiness and personal growth among older adults. I will pick one of many possible examples to illustrate how LLL also achieves this aim. Aging research has shown that a persistent concern among older adults is the desire to embolden future generations–what psychologists call ‘generativity.’ Generativity is expressed in many ways, such as the scholarships provided by LLL. It’s also expressed through intergenerational dialogue; a context in which older adults advise, instruct, and share wisdom about life and living that they have accumulated over the years. It’s a legacy leaving process that matters so much to both young and older people. I love that LLL is an outlet to satisfy the need for generativity among retired individuals. And for many of us, who are pursuing higher education far away from our parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, opportunities to connect with older adults in such a meaningful way are rare. Fortunately, through my research, I’ve had the opportunity to conduct life story interviews with many older adults living in the Toronto area. It has been humbling, inspiring, and wonderfully educational.
Q4. How do you feel LLL’s place within the Innis community, and their impact on the student experience, could be reinforced and enhanced?
[Nic] With the “aging boom” on our doorstep, we should ask ourselves: What else can we do to harness the transformative power of intergenerational exchange? This is important for so many reasons. As I’ve alluded to above, part of my research examines the transmission of lived wisdom through intergenerational storytelling, which, in our research, we define as the exchange of stories between grandchildren and their grandparents. We believe that intergenerational storytelling is mutually transformative for younger and older adults in terms of their personal development and quality of life at all ages. Imagine an “intergenerational classroom” where Innis students and LLL members learn together in some curricular or co-curricular program that enables the sharing of personal stories! As Mojan has pointed out, these conversations are often perspective-shifting in a way that transcends textbook learning. Really, the sky is the limit! Right now I’m imagining a Cinema Studies course on, say, the Golden Age of Cinema, where undergraduate students view and discuss these films with members of LLL, who can, in turn, provide a rich cultural-historical perspective on the topic. These conversations will be naturally infused with stories and lessons for students to consider and grow from. As exemplars of successful aging, through lifelong learning, the LLL group is a vast personal resource to students, and students to them.
[Mojan] As we have discussed, Innis students are already benefitting a great deal through their interactions with LLL members, who are such a vital part of our community. However, I believe there are some very big opportunities that would build upon the spontaneous conversations already happening with the LLL membership. Even greater interaction can definitely be facilitated through co-curricular programming, such as the “intergenerational classroom” concept that Nic has just described.
Both students and LLL members possess large and diverse amounts of knowledge, life experiences and points of view. Bringing them together around shared interests, in a manner that provokes meaningful conversation, would be phenomenal. I suspect you would see tremendous results for all involved. Passion for learning in students would increase very quickly, and an even greater connection between LLL and the Innis community would develop. I think this would be a very rewarding direction for Innis College!
Thank you Mojan and Nic for sharing your insights and personal reflections on the value of lifelong learning, and for your words of gratitude to our fellow Innisians in the Later Life Learning program. It is through conversations such as this that our rich sense of community is illuminated, and from which new, innovative opportunities for learning can emerge. To learn more about the Later Life Learning program, visit their website at http://sites.utoronto.ca/innis/lll.