LLI Spotlight: Jeff Shinaman, Executive Director, Academy for Lifelong Learning (ALL), SUNY Empire State College

Photo Courtesy of SUNY Empire State College

By Peter Spiers

The Academy for Lifelong Learning at SUNY Empire State College was founded by volunteers in 1992 and has since grown to 375 members, with a 40% spike in membership in the last year alone. Jeff Shinaman, ALL’s Executive Director, attributes the recent growth to a change in membership dues and the class fee structure. Formerly a flat annual fee of $250 for all the courses you wanted at no extra charge, the model now combines $50 annual membership dues with a per-semester fee of $50 for the first course and $25 for each additional course. Each spring and fall eight-week term features about 30 classes (or “study groups” as they’re called at this lifelong learning institute) led by volunteer facilitators who are a mix of ALL members and local community representatives. In addition to multi-week classes, ALL offers several one-time lectures each semester, free to members and their guests, featuring speakers such as Memory Athlete Brad Zupp. ALL is located in Saratoga Springs, NY, home to the famous Saratoga Race Course and close to prime vacation destinations Lake George and Adirondack Park. Saratoga Springs has become a retirement destination with a growing 60+ population.

What do you consider your top 3-5 responsibilities at the Academy for Lifelong Learning?
I work part-time—about 24 hours a week—as does our office manager. Our salaries are paid by the Academy, but we receive free office and classroom space, and free tech support including phone and computer systems and classroom AV equipment, form SUNY Empire State. So naturally an important part of my job is maintaining a strong relationship with our host institution, and it certainly helps that the parents of our university president are active Academy members! Beyond that I’m deeply involved in working with curriculum committee to develop new study groups; I have a lot of links to the local community and as a result I’ve been able to bring course facilitators from outside. I create the class schedule and put together our spring and fall brochures, and I’m an ex officio member of our thirteen-member executive council.

What did you do before you came to ALL?
I was vice-president for membership at the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce for 13 years. I’m at the Academy six hours a day Monday through Thursday and my other is as a “jack of all trades” for the business my wife Katie runs called Sundaes Best Hot Fudge Sauce. She developed the business from a family recipe and now sells almost a dozen different toppings through the mail and in specialty stores nationwide.

What are some favorite courses you offer?
We’ve been offering the Great Decisions course for many years, and it’s very popular. We also have several study group leaders who draw a crowd no matter what they’re teaching. Murray Levith, a retired professor from Skidmore College, has previously led six study groups and this semester is offering “Shakespeare’s Tragedies Through the Ages.” I helped develop a program called “Celebrating our Precious Water Supply Series” that will examine the abundant water supply available to Eastern New York State and New York City. Another new course concept will bring in eight speakers over the eight-week term to talk about the history of eight different Saratoga area towns.

Tell me about a member or members who has or have made a significant contribution to the OLLI’s success?
We’re very proud to have more than a dozen members in our Master Leader Society, a designation for people who have taught 15 or more study groups. One of our great study leaders was Phyllis Marks, who passed away in September. Phyllis taught a study group on “mindful doodling” and mesmerized members with stories from her career at Seventeen magazine and on Steve Allen’s television show “Songs for Sale.”

Is there another LLI you admire and have learned something from?
I read the LLI Resource Network newsletter as a source for new curriculum ideas, and an idea there sparked a study group called “History, Horses, and Handicapping” where we brought in jockeys, trainers and handicappers from the Saratoga Race Course. And when we needed to upgrade our registration system we got great advice from people at the Union College Academy for Lifelong Learning in Schenectady.

What developments do you see in the future for ALL or the lifelong learning movement more broadly?
With more and more retired people in our community and a growing membership I expect that we’ll need to look outside the college for additional classroom space. We’ll solve this in part by offering more experiential learning outside of the classroom environment where “classes” will be in the field, something we’re already doing in our photography programs and by visiting places like the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College. Right now we only offer study groups Monday through Thursday so adding programs on Friday and the weekend is another option.

What was your formal education?
I’m from New York but left to get a marketing degree from Ohio State. I’ve been in Saratoga for 23 years.

Tell me about ALL’s travel program?
We offer a couple of three-day trips every year, going to places like the Finger Lakes, Newport, RI, and Montreal. We also have day trips to cultural destinations like the newly-refurbished Clark Institute in Williamstown, Mass. We work with AAA to charter buses for these trips. I was a little astonished to learn from the LLI Institute Network survey that 87% of our members have valid passports so we’ve now set our first international destination, a 2016 trip to Ireland.

Where would you most like to travel to that you haven’t visited already? Why?
I love to travel in the United States. My dream is to visit Hawaii, but I think our next trip will be to see the great National Parks like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon.

Is there a book you’ve read for pleasure recently that you would recommend to others?
I try to read books that would be interesting or relevant to our members. Dr. Roger Landry, the author of “Live Long, Die Short,” gave two lectures at an Academy fundraising event that drew and audience of 150. The lectures were fantastic. We’re having him back in November!

Photo Courtesy of SUNY Empire State College