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PCCs Senior Studies Institute: Where learning has no age limit

MULTNOMAH - At Portland Community College's Senior Studies Institute (SSI), 270 'retired but not retiring' members attend, plan and present a total of 120 classes a year to continually expand their own horizons.

The institute's mission and motto, 'We learn from each other and we never stop learning,' inspires individuals interested in anything from American politics to Broadway musicals to participate in SSI's all-volunteer program.

The Senior Studies Institute began 20 years ago in 1991 when Neal Naigus of Portland Community College queried a few seniors who were taking classes at PCC. Together they transformed SSI from a 30-student, four-class, one-location organization to one with more than 270 students, 40 different classes, 60 current event sessions and six locations.

SSI uses the Neighborhood House Senior Center, located in the Multnomah Arts Center at 7688 S.W. Capitol Hwy., for weekly current events and play reading meetings as well as twice-monthly class lectures.

'SSI classes keep me in touch with the larger world,' Aileen Clark, former chair and founding member, said. 'I find myself curious and interested in what others in the world are experiencing. It makes my life larger.'

Approximately 50 percent of SSI classes are lead by members, and the other half are created from members' suggestions for topics and speakers.

'The main reason I like to prepare classes,' Don Lief, current SSI chair, said, 'is that I end up learning more about a new subject than anyone listening to my talk. (There is) no doubt in my mind that research for a two-hour lecture is roughly equal to writing a term paper for a class in a university graduate school.'

Preparing for a SSI lecture, Leif said, is 'hard but really fun.'

Kathy McCulloch, past SSI chair, said that 'Instructors need only be interested in the subject - no qualifications needed.' This opens up opportunities for members to introduce anything that strikes their interest, from the U.S. Supreme Court, to the history of beer to poetry fun.

In addition to the sessions led by members, classes are also taught by outside speakers such as PCC Professor James Harrison, who taught during Black History Month, and Peter Charlston of Lewis and Clark College, who taught a Greek theater class.

No matter who teaches them, 'The SSI classes are always a surprise. I go to the class not sure what I will learn, but I always leave not only with information but with the desire to know more,' McCulloch said.

Classes through SSI are meant to be interactive, which makes them different than most lecture classes. The weekly current events, play readings and book potpourri sessions are discussions rather than lectures. Additionally, SSI puts on events such as luncheons held at local venues - one in the spring and one in the holiday season, all featuring a speaker or other form of entertainment. There is also an annual orientation in the fall and a picnic in July.

'The unspoken and almost indefinable part of this group is the community formed and the friendships established that extend well beyond the classroom,' McCulloch said.

Soon, the Senior Studies Institute will be celebrating its 20th anniversary by hosting a luncheon at the Oregon Zoo Cascade Room. There will be piano music provided by member Kay Robbins as well as a 'sumptuous buffet and speakers including SSI's first chair Mary McGladrev and PCC's President Preston Pulliams,' McCulloch said.

'SSI is a cornucopia right here in River City!' said Dawn Carol, chair-elect who will take the gavel in May, 'What might you find? Curiosity, diversity, camaraderie, endless opportunities to learn, examine opinions, exchange ideas, express perspectives, solidify positions… and then evolve, surrounded by senior citizens equally interested in the world beyond self.'

The Senior Studies Institute has no age restrictions; its youngest member is 59, and another of its active members is 96. It offers two classes free for those interested in checking out the program, and then $30 a year covers everything - there is no tuition, no registration fees and no extras.

Check out SSI's website at or call 503-228-2488 for more information. The institute's spring term schedule is now online.