Mitzi Werther used the words of a favorite author to describe her passion for the senior emeritus program at Richland College:

“’People don’t grow old. When people stop learning, they become old,’” she says.

Werther, then 61, started taking Richland’s non-credit courses aimed at senior citizens in 1991. Administrators decided to provide additional funding and support in 1993 for what became the senior emeritus program, and Werther, a retired buyer, was appointed as the program director. Today, these classes – 90 percent of which are taught by volunteer accredited instructors – attract about 300 senior citizens each semester, many from our neighborhood.

About 30 non-credit courses, covering topics such as computers. Spanish, literature, history and photography, are available this fall. Typical course fees are from $5 to $25. These courses are open to anyone 55 and older.

Also, recent state legislation allows those 65 and older who live within a college’s district to register for six hours of tuition-waived credit courses each semester. Werther registers seniors in these courses and lists credit classes of special interests to seniors. With credit or without, neighborhood residents say these courses have provided an invaluable service in helping older people explore new areas.

John Crews says the classes have become a “home away from home” for himself and his wife, Lillian. When he retired after 40 years in sales at the 3M Company in 1991, the couple discussed moving. But their involvement with the emeritus program – which has included taking classes in Internet use, Fellini films, history, fitness and theater – ended that discussion.

“We’re so involved over there we can’t pull ourselves away. It’s so interesting to learn something all the time,” Lillian says.

Neighborhood resident Ruth Kirby, a four-year participant in the emeritus program, says it “is an ideal way to meet other people interested in growing and learning.”

“There’s a special group of people there who love to teach,” Kirby says. “They’re as passionate as Mitzi, and the excitement is just contagious.”

That passion – from the students, volunteer teachers and program director – has led to the creation of new features for the emeritus program.

One is called “Conversation Partners.” It matches emeritus students willing to participate one hour a week in conversations with non-native Richland students who are studying English as a second language. The benefits: Students practice their English and absorb cultural information in a supportive setting; volunteers are able to act as mentors while learning about other cultures.

Coming this fall is “Turning Points: Stories from Life,” a series of workshops, lectures and performances related to storytelling. “Turning Points” participants will be eligible to compete in a local “Turning Point” writing contest and the national “Legacies” contest.

Additions to the program are intended to further its goal of providing a forum for lifelong learning. Werther says senior citizens have heard plenty about staying physically active to keep their bodies strong, but only in recent years has there been as much attention given to “stimulating the brain as a muscle” to keep minds strong.

That challenge to vigorously work out body and mind has been embraced by emeritus students. Kirby, for one, is ready to plunge into another topic after several semesters spent taking writing and self-realization courses. She’s considering classes in computers or Bible history.

“I want to change what I’ve been studying to something entirely new and different,” she says. “I want to keep open to new subjects, new ideas, new ways of thinking.”

Call (972) 238-6393 for more information on emeritus courses.