LLI Spotlight: Sage Academy for Lifelong Learning, Goucher College – Judy Cohen, Program Director

By Peter Spiers

In past Spotlight interviews we’ve shared with you insights and tips from established Lifelong Learning Institutes. In contrast, Sage Academy for Lifelong Learning at Baltimore’s Goucher College is in its infancy, and learning about its story so far is like observing a birth in real time. Spotlight spoke with Judy Cohen, Sage’s Program Director.

Where did the idea of starting an LLI at Goucher come from?
Goucher’s Welch Center for Graduate & Professional Studies enables students to pursue graduate and professional degrees at their own pace online, in person, or a mix of the two. The center’s Executive Director, Associate Provost Kathryn Doherty, had come from another college with an LLI program and thought it would make sense for Goucher to have one as a way to engage with our community, and especially with local alumnae and alumni, to get them back to campus and excited about Goucher’s many offerings. I was working in another role at the Welch Center and Kathy thought my skills would be well-suited to the task, so she asked if I would be interested in taking the lead.

How did you get SAGE off the ground?
The idea hatched in spring, 2018, and it took almost a year before we offered our first program in March of this year. We began by convening an advisory group that included the Associate Provost, our Director of Distance Learning, our budget analyst, and an alumna from Goucher’s class of 1972. The advisory group met several times to formulate a launch plan, and we spent last fall doing in-depth qualitative research in the form of focus groups. We came up with a list of alumnae who graduated in the 1960s and ‘70s and who lived within driving distance. We created a paper invitation, inviting them to a sit-down lunch in a private dining room at Goucher’s newly-redeveloped Mary Fisher Dining Center—which we wanted to showcase—followed by an hour-long presentation on the concept, an opportunity for questions and answers, and a written evaluation. We recruited panels for three groups of about 18 each. Our three big takeaways from these sessions were: 1) there was strong interest in the idea, 2) specific learning topics of interest ranged widely, with a strong emphasis on current events and social justice, and 3) there was solid interest in educational travel opportunities through Sage. We also hoped we might recruit a few volunteers and program participants. While we were conducting our research we also began creating a website and marketing materials, sourcing instructors, and securing classroom space. We also reached out to organizations in the community, like the Baltimore County Department of Aging, to help us get the word out. With a business plan to guide us, affirmation through the focus groups, and a draft for a website, we got the green light from the college to move ahead around the first of the year.

How did you put together the initial curriculum?
We decided to test the waters with a series of 12 one-session programs on a variety of topics, running from March 25th to May 1st. While it was a limited selection, topics ranged widely, from a technology program on internet security and a presentation on Shakespeare, to a session on “Waste Systems & Solutions” on Earth Day and a program about Baltimore street art and murals. We networked broadly to find these topics and teachers, eventually putting together a “faculty” that included Goucher professors and staff, community thought leaders, and even some personal friends of mine who were happy to support the effort! We charged participants $15 for each program.

How did your first semester go?
We attracted 300+ participants, including ten from our original focus groups. We surveyed all participants, asking them to rate the program on a five-point scale, and to tell what they liked about their session and what they thought could be improved. We also asked them how likely they would be to refer a friend to future sessions. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but we also learned about some things we could do better. As an example, many older participants came from a nearby retirement community and some had trouble hearing our presenters. We’re now looking into ways we can enhance the audio for our next round of programs, and we’ll have to encourage some presenters to speak to the people in the back of the room!

Where does Sage go from here?
We’re putting together our fall lineup of programs now, while also looking at ways to expand and develop the concept of Sage. Some of the things we’re looking at include how to structure and when to offer a membership option in addition to our a la carte enrollment, and what extra benefits of membership—such as use of the athletic facility and library, discounted meals in our dining hall, or class auditing privileges—we might “package” with membership. We’re exploring multi-session programs as well, but the fall lineup will probably be structured similarly to the spring’s, with a few new features to keep things exciting.

One of the ways we want to differentiate Sage is through engagement with undergraduate students, and we’ve got that underway. We’ve added students to our advisory council, and our program proposal form asks prospective instructors to think of ways to incorporate undergraduates into their session. For example, we have a proposal for the fall for a program on microplastics in our drinking water, and the professor plans to bring students into our classroom to share the results of their research and to test participants’ home water samples. Our commitment to creating an “intergenerational community” is explicitly evoked on the mission and vision page of our website.

How do you expect program governance will evolve?
For the time being we’ll continue with our advisory board. As we move into a membership model and as members demonstrate loyalty and interest, we’ll consider other options, including inviting some to serve as advisors.

Are there other LLIs you network with or have learned from?
In April, 2018, you published a Spotlight interview with Morgan Jordan from Wofford College in South Carolina. I reached out to her and she has been a great source of inspiration, as well as a resource for advice on building infrastructure, course scheduling, course evaluations—all the nuts and bolts aspects of getting a program started. She has become a good friend and even visited Goucher last December.

What did you do before you came to Goucher?
I worked as the Managing Director of the friends group that supports Hampton National Historic Site in Towson, Maryland, for 15 years before getting a Master’s at Goucher in 2012. I’ve been working at the Welch Center since 2016.

You mentioned that a travel program might be in Sage’s future. Where would you most like to take a group of your members to?
We’ll definitely walk before we run on the travel side and start with local trips, and we’ll survey our participants to see where they want to go. If it were up to me, my short list would include the fjords in Norway, St. Petersburg, Russia, Scotland, and the Greek Isles.

Tell me about a book you’ve read or podcast you’ve listened to that you would recommend to others.
I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately and Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” really stands out. It’s an amazing inside view about the challenges and rewards of getting to and being in the White House, but also a really honest look past her public persona to the struggles and obstacles she faced growing up, getting an education, balancing the demands of a career and family, and confronting racism . Her love for her family and for her country really shine through as she masterfully shares her story.