HILLSDALE, Mich. Few people think of going on vacation to learn about American history. Ann Baker Jenkins is one of those people.
Throughout this week, senior citizens from across the country have been staying at Hillsdale College for the annual Sherlock Hibbs Hostel Program, which occurs three times each summer.
Participants - around 60 - stay on campus for the week, taking classes during the day and participating in fun side projects at night. It’s one of 8,000 programs offered internationally through the non-profit Elderhostel organization, available at reduced costs for people 55 and older.
Wednesday was the group’s day off, which prompted organizers to try something new this year - a ride on the Little River Railroad between Hillsdale and Jonesville. The five-mile trip took only 20 minutes, but those who came from places like Tennessee and California enjoyed seeing the backwoods of Michigan.
Jenkins has been to the hostel six times. She is part of the Ancient Roots of Western Civilization Class; others are studying What Is America?
Looking out the window as the train shuffled through the county, the Maryland resident smiled.
“Summer just wouldn’t be complete without a hostel,” she said.
Founded in 1975, the Boston-based Elderhostel program aims to offer older adults ways to continue their learning through expert lectures, tours and demonstrations. About 160,000 people enroll yearly in week-long events like tours of the Grand Canyon or lectures on college campuses and museums.
In April, the program released the results of a study it conducted on the affects of life-long learning on aging. The researchers concluded that program participants were generally more active, more healthy and more optimistic than the general population of the same age.
“Elderhostelers are almost impossibly hale, hearty, curious and tenacious, and often active well into their eighties and nineties,” explained Peter Spiers, Elderhostel’s vice president of communications and marketing and the author of the study. “They’ve redefined what it means to be old in our society.”
For instance, on the Michigan train sat Charlie Tooth grinned through some good-natured ribbing from his wife who had not been enthusiastic about his driving from their home in San Francisco.
But both said they love making trips like this to see the United States.
The reason they visited the hostel for a week is because, as Tooth said, one should keep learning throughout life.
“If you’re going to maintain excellence in whatever profession you’re in, you should never stop learning,” he said.
Classes during the hostel have titles like “Dealing With China in the 21st Century” and “Opportunity or Entitlement.”
The Western Civilization courses cover a lot of ground in a week; participant Kyle Creson of Tennessee said it has helped him understand not only how the Judeo-Christian religion was formed and came to power but the traditions and thoughts that the founding fathers used to shape America.
Although what stood out to Creson and his wife Jayne more than the subject matter were the students at Hillsdale College, which is why the Cresons keep coming back. 2007 was their fourth year.
“You don’t normally see this kind of kid,” Kyle said. “They want to learn.”
In addition to spreading the name of the college, the train ride served to get the word out on the Little River Railroad, which is based out of Coldwater and online at www.littleriverrailroad.com.
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