USD's University of the Third Age Turns 40: Life-Long Learning at its Finest

A new year is upon us. Calendars are turning to 2018, returning to January, and for a dedicated group of men and women who relish life-long learning their familiar routine is revving up as well.

From January 8-25, 2018 and again for three weeks in June, the University of San Diego's longest-running community outreach program, University of the Third Age (U3A), will commence. Considered one of the top educational offerings locally for people age 55 and up, both 2018 U3A sessions will celebrate the program’s 40th anniversary at USD, which is the only known United States host of a predominantly international U3A program.

"It's a fun place for long-time learning,” says Marta Brown, a U3A attendee for nearly 20 years. “There are no tests, no homework, no term papers and yet you'll learn just as much as any other student does. This program brings your life to life."

Diana Brotherton-Ware has known of the program for even longer as a second-generation U3A attendee. Her parents attended U3A in its infancy when it was run by USD's inaugural director, General Victor Krulak, and supported by then-USD President, Author "Art" Hughes and his wife, Marge.

"I'd hear wonderful stories in January and July about what they had learned," she recalls. "They were always so enthusiastic about it so I put it on my bucket list to attend when I retired from teaching. I've been coming regularly now for 12 years and I've been an enthusiastic participant ever since."

Enthusiasm to Learn

Her and others’ enthusiasm stems from being in a program that offers diverse, topical information from experts such as a police chief, medical doctors, lawyers, authors, USD faculty, and a popular librarian who makes book recommendations.

"I love the six weeks with the University of the Third Age students," said Jodi Waterhouse, who has been involved with USD's U3A program for 22 years as its director. "We give them half a day to close out the rest of the world and really focus on learning something new. There's no age limit to learn something new. We've got sharp, bright, community-minded and successful people."

Lois Hodik is one. A U3A attendee since 2006, Hodik is among a group of student ambassadors Waterhouse relies on for feedback to maintain the program's effectiveness.

"There's so many things going on you want to know about. Things are happening in the community, in science, there's something happening at this university, at UCSD, Salk Institute or on the border with immigration," Hodik says. "There are so many important things happening that you're not going to find out in the depth that you will at U3A if you're just reading the newspaper. It's a way to find out things that are good to know, things you’re expected to have an opinion about or a responsibility to vote."

Participants go on field trips to interesting places and always with a unique perspective. Past highlights include a La Jolla Playhouse backstage tour, being on the tarmac at San Diego's Lindberg Airport and being inside an operating room in a Mercy hospital ship docked at the downtown San Diego harbor.

Many point out that an enjoyable aspect is gaining new appreciation for a subject that, at first, may seem unappealing.

"I enjoy them all," said Doug Clark, a retired city manager in Escondido, who has been coming to U3A since 2013. "It always surprises me when I look at a lecture and I think, 'Oh, that one doesn't really interest me,' but I'll go and most of the time you are learning things you didn't have an initial interest in, but when you hear it, it's really good information."

The information is often so rich that it's not uncommon for participants to hear something cutting edge. "In our household, we have what's called the 'U3A Effect,' Hodik says. "Oftentimes within a month or two of the speakers you've heard at U3A, you'll see them in the headlines of the newspaper."

The stimulation of this new information, for friendships formed with fellow life-long learners and questions offered by an attentive audience comprised of former teachers, retired military, local officials, doctors, lawyers and more, is what makes U3A such a valuable entity.  

"I think University of the Third Age is an important program because there are so few opportunities for seniors to gather and listen to the marvelous speakers who are interested in us, interested in telling this population what they're doing and what they're contributing to San Diego," said Agnes West-Kohler, a 1965 graduate of the San Diego College for Women and a U3A attendee for six years.

Making a Connection Between U3A and USD

Being back on campus for U3A is a plus. "I enjoy seeing how much it has grown, how it has developed and how it has kept its integrity with the same architecture, the beautiful grounds. They've been very careful to keep it the way it was first designed by Mother (Rosalie) Hill," West-Kohler said.

Brotherton-Ware agrees. She attended USD in the 1980s to obtain a special education teaching credential. She’s not only a U3A regular, but has also been a men's basketball season-ticket holder since the team played its games in the Sports Center gym.

You don't have to be a USD graduate to be in the U3A program but it can be a gateway to discover more ways to enjoy what the university offers. From art gallery exhibitions, diverse music and theatre performances, to Mass at Founders Chapel and The Immaculata, or attending a lecture at the Humanities Center or Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Theatre, there's always something to do.

"My wife and I live close to USD, but we didn't see it as a resource as much as we do now," Clark said. "I go to USD's Electronics Recycling Center every three or four weeks. We attend Lessons and Carols and some of the Bridges (Academy) lectures. La Gran Terraza has become one of our favorite restaurants. We go there for special occasions because it has a great view, the tables aren't crammed together and you can have a conversation."

Perhaps one conversation is about something learned at U3A. Clark particularly enjoys U3A’s early morning programming. Prior to the day’s speakers, U3A students learn technology basics about computers, digital photography, smartphones, social media and mobile apps.

"The instructors always come with something new, a new app, or, say, a new situation where I want to be careful about for passwords," Clark said. "A lot of us at U3A are still using technology so the more we learn, the more we can be safe when we're using it."

Life-long learning is a vital component for all. The U3A regulars understand its value and, as ambassadors, spread the message to their friends about joining them and the program's merits.

In 2018 during its 40th anniversary celebration, speakers, including current USD President James Harris’ first appearance in January, will provide interesting and useful information. The dawn of a new year brings the excitement of seeing good friends, meeting new people and engaging and enjoying a special experience.

"Those of us who come here regularly are travelers, volunteers and we workout, but we put all of that aside twice a year,” Hodik says. “We don't make travel plans in January or June because we know we're coming to U3A. It's already written on our calendar."

— Ryan T. Blystone