LLI Spotlight:  Karen Rice, Director, Shepherd University Lifelong Learning Program, Shepherdstown, W.Va.

By Peter Spiers

The Shepherd University Lifelong Learning Program was conceived in 2009 when members of a group called Shepherdstown Area Independent Living approached university officials about forming a lifelong learning program similar to those at other colleges and universities in North America.  The then-university president, who had come from a university with a lifelong learning program, strongly supported the idea and put together an advisory committee of staff, faculty, and people from the community to explore the idea.  The committee discovered strong interest in the community, and the first programs were offered in the fall term of 2011.  Karen Rice, a graduate business student at Shepherd and an intern in the university’s advancement office at the time, was offered a part-time job directing the lifelong learning program and a year later hired full-time to also direct Shepherd’s continuing education program.

Six-and-a-half years later, the Shepherd University Lifelong Learning Program boasts 100 members but also engaged another 75 non-members in its program in the fall of 2017.  Two membership levels are offered: the Gold membership ($325 a year) entitles members to unlimited course enrollment, admission to all Brown Bag Luncheon Lectures, discounts on the many local tours, national and international tours offered by the program, and free parking; and the Silver membership ($85 a year) entitles members to enroll in courses for a $60 fee, admission to all Brown Bag Luncheon Lectures, and tour discounts.  Non-members can, for one semester only, enroll in courses for a $99 fee and attend Brown Bag Luncheon Lectures for $15 without paying a membership fee.  The university’s popular President’s Lecture Series featuring well-known visiting speakers is free to the community, as well as the Café Society Discussion Group, an open forum with conversations about contemporary social and political issues; the Lifelong Learning Program invites prospective members to the Series and Discussions as a lure to membership.

The Lifelong Learning Program relies heavily on a cadre of loyal volunteers and especially on an advisory committee of nine members who, Karen Rice says, are willing to get involved in any project she asks them to; recently, for example, an advisory committee team investigated and tested a variety of online registration options for the program.  As the organization grows, the governance structure is maturing, and the committee is creating a plan to expand rank-and-file leadership to include separate committees for curriculum and membership. 

Shepherdstown is a small town with a permanent population of fewer than 2,000 people just a few miles upstream on the Potomac River from Antietam Battlefield and Harper’s Ferry.  Only 70 miles west of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, it has become a popular retirement location for former Washington-area residents.  The university dominates the local economy, the town is also home to the renowned Contemporary American Theater Festival, and the retiree population is high educated.

RS: What do you consider your major responsibilities at Shepherd?

KR: Because of my other responsibilities for running Shepherd’s Continuing Education Program, I’m essentially half-time with the Lifelong Learning Program, and I pretty much do it all, including creating our catalog, marketing, managing registration and finding instructors.

RS: How does curriculum development work?  What are some favorite courses you offer?

KR: Curriculum ideas come from every place imaginable.  Members and committee members propose ideas or tell me about someone who they think would make a great instructor, or I might be out in the community and come across someone with an expertise who I invite to teach a course.  This spring we’ll have 29 different courses and eight lecturers for our Brown Bag Luncheon Lectures.  Our courses tend to be academic rather than “hands-on,” and our instructors include active and retired faculty members, Program members with fascinating professional backgrounds, and people from the community.  One current Shepherd faculty member is teaching a course called “Appalachian Stars:  Charles Frazier and Cold Mountain.”  Grant Smith, a former U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan, has been our Great Decisions instructor for several years, and another member who ran the Counter Terrorism Center at the CIA teaches courses on Islamic radicalism.  Our members are very interested in international politics and especially the Middle East; we have an imam who instructs on the Islamic faith.   We offer few hands-on programs but do have a great relationship with the Fine Art, Science, Technology, Engineering, Educational Resource (FASTEnER) Lab at Shepherd, and have begun offering courses on the metal arts, wood carving, and digital fabrication.

RS: Are there other LLIs you network with or have learned from? 

KR: I have great contacts at the University of Virginia, the University of Richmond, George Mason University and elsewhere, and I don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call them if I have a question or need advice.  Staff at the OLLI at West Virginia University were very generous with their time when we were getting started, and I’ve been able to return the favor by offering tips to people at Marshall University and Midwestern State University as they explore launching a lifelong learning program. 

RS: What is your major longer-term or strategic focus?

KR: We’re continuing to investigate our options for both online registration and for establishing a social media presence.  And as more retirees come to our area we have a lot of opportunities for increasing membership.

RS: What did you do before you came to Shepherd? 

KR: I have an undergraduate degree in finance and worked in the trust department at BB&T Bank in Charleston, W.Va., before my husband’s job brought us to the eastern panhandle.  We moved into the house he and his father before him had grown up in and expanded our family.  When my youngest child entered kindergarten, I entered the MBA program at Shepherd, got the internship in the Advising Assistance Center and advancement department, and landed in the Lifelong Learning Program.  It’s not what I expected to be doing, but I love working with the members, talking with them, and just being with them.  They’re a fun group.

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

KR: I want to go to Vietnam, China or Peru.  I love learning about different cultures, exploring new areas and talking to the people who live there.  I go on some of the tours we offer, and led a wine-and-food-themed trip to Mendoza, Argentina, a mecca for Malbec wine and Argentinian steak lovers. 

RS: Tell me about a book you’ve read or podcast you’ve listened to that you would recommend to others? 

KR: I recently read — and highly recommend — Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard, by Liz Murray.  It was part of the Common Reading Program at Shepherd, and it’s a fabulous story, a real outpouring of herself and what she experienced living with two drug-dependent parents. She demonstrates that if you follow your dreams and set your mind to something, you can accomplish anything.