LLI Spotlight: Scherry Barra, Director, Christopher Wren Association, William & Mary, Williamsburg, Va.

By Peter Spiers

The Christopher Wren Association (CWA) at William & Mary was founded in 1991 by retired educators Wayne and Ruth Kernodle. While part of the school’s University Advancement department, CWA is self-funding and self-operating—William & Mary provides office and classroom space, but all out-of-pocket expenses, including staff salaries, are covered by member fees. Two full- and two part-time staff members keep the program running, and a third full-time staff member has just been hired. Some classes and events are held off campus at nearby retirement communities or in the Williamsburg Regional Library’s theater space.

The association is managed by a 13-member, all-volunteer board of directors, consisting of the chairs of the various operating committees, including committees for Finance, Special Events, and Programs. The Program Committee has a unique structure, made up of 12 people, each responsible for recruiting instructors, reviewing evaluations, meeting catalog deadlines … in short, everything required to create a slate of compelling programs for each of the 12 subject areas in the CWA course catalog.

About 1,400 members take classes each semester and pay a fee of $100 to enroll in up to 15 course units, though this fee and class structure is likely to change when the installation of Lumens registration software from Augusoft is completed.

The Williamsburg area has become a magnet for retirees who want to live in an academic community, and CWA has benefited not only in membership but also from the wealth of retired educators eager to share their expertise or their passion with others. We also have great people from the local community—like Master Gardeners or docents from Colonial Williamsburg—who instruct in our program.

What do you consider your top 3-5 responsibilities at CWA?

I spend a lot of my time coordinating between our board of directors and staff, basically taking the wishes of the board and working with staff to make them happen. Since I’ve been at CWA for nearly 10 years, I can also provide the board with a historical perspective and a sense of continuity.

I’m also the primary liaison with the wider university community, especially to the William & Mary Alumni Association. (I’m a state employee and report to the Alumni Association Executive Director.) As an example, the Alumni Association wants to explore distance learning for alumni, and came to us to help them develop a pilot project that will probably involve taping and making a CWA course available online to alumni.

I also spend a fair amount of time on long-range planning, community relations, and just working with the staff to get things done. When we’re on deadline to produce our catalog, for example, we all pitch in.

What are some favorite courses you offer?

Some of our instructors have a terrific following. A member said about one of these instructors that “if he taught a course on how to bake a cake, I’d take it.” We have a course on using your iPad that’s very popular—people want to communicate with their grandchildren. There’s a real variety of popular courses, from current issues related to the presidential election, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Pope Francis, and 600 Years of German History. Our language conversation tables—for French, Italian, Spanish, and German—meet once a week and are very popular. Several of our members go to three of them!

Tell me about a member, or members, who has made a significant contribution to the CWA’s success?

I would point to a couple of our committees rather than to individuals. Our program chair and the rest of his committee devote hundreds of hours to looking at all evaluations, meeting with deans to recruit instructors, monitoring attendance patterns, and orienting new instructors—especially those with no teaching experience—on how best to manage and facilitate learning and discussion with a group of older students.

The Chair of our Technology Integration Committee has been a huge help as we’ve reviewed and selected new registration software.

We also have a hard-working group of people who serve as “hosts” or “class assistants” for every class session. They make organizational announcements, put out refreshments, get instructors anything they might need during a break, clean up the room after class, and break down and lock up any AV equipment the instructor might have used. Some of our members are willing to host 5-6 classes each semester!

Is there another LLI you admire and have learned something from?

I’m very impressed with the program managed by Catherine Frank at the OLLI, UNC-Asheville. I also get together a couple of times a year with directors from other Virginia Lifelong Learning Institutes, including those from James Madison University, Christopher Newport University, Hampton, University of Virginia, the University of Richmond, George Mason University, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Old Dominion University. We all share ideas and experiences when we meet, and I have often come away with a fresh perspective.

What developments do you see in the future for CWA or the Lifelong Learning Movement more broadly?

For 22 of our years we were an association explicitly for people of retirement age. We removed that language from our bylaws and now we’re open to all adults—our goal is to attract younger people who might be stay-at-home parents or who might work the night shift. We’re starting to see some younger people joining, and the survey we’ll send out at the end of the spring semester will tell us more reliably whether we’re starting to attract the under-60 crowd. Additionally for those who work during the day, we’re looking at offering evening classes, but space is at a premium that time of day.

What did you do before you came to CWA?

Before I came to CWA, and while I was raising my children, I was a pre-school teacher. I have Associate degrees in both Early Childhood Education and Computer Information Systems.

Where would you most like to travel that you haven’t visited already?

I had always wanted to go to Italy and finally was able to when my daughter was there for a semester abroad in college. I flew over and met her on the last day of her program and we spent 10 days together visiting Rome, Capri and Florence.

CWA has offered some local trips with mixed success. An overnight to Pennsylvania to visit Winterthur, the Brandywine River Museum, and Longwood Gardens was a big success, but we’ve had to cancel some day trips to the theater or museums in Richmond because of low enrollment. We’re exploring the idea of offering longer-distance trips in coordination with the trips offered through the William & Mary alumni association.

What do you do in your spare time?

I love to sing. I’m in my church choir and I serve as cantor for mass at St. Olaf Catholic Church. I also sing in hconcerts at the Williamsburg Community Chapel, and I used to sing barbershop in the Sweet Adelines! My husband and I enjoy Carolina Shag dancing in the summer at concerts offered locally off the Yorktown River and in Colonial Williamsburg’s Merchant Square.