When Vijai Nathan was in her early 20s, she took a class intended as a diversion from her life. Instead, it ended up diverting her life.
It was the mid-1990s, and Nathan was working as a copy editor at the Baltimore Sun, engaged to be married and “really miserable.”
“I had a job I thought I was supposed to have and a guy I thought I was supposed to have, and I was not happy,” Nathan says. “I always wanted to be a performer growing up, but it’s not like every Indian immigrant’s dream is for their kids to be a performer, let alone a comedian.”
When Nathan read about a two-session class designed to teach people to become stand-up comedians, she signed up. The course was offered by First Class, a lifelong learning center that had carved out a niche in the adult education market by providing cheap seminars on how to do just about anything, such as writing a screenplay, adopting a child or getting a job in covert operations. The stand-up sessions were taught by Chip Franklin, a comedian and radio talk show host and one of the many area professionals sharing their know-how in the stately brick Dupont Circle rowhouse where most First Class classes were held.
Encouraged by classmates’ reaction to her routines, Nathan quit her job, broke up with her fiance, and put the money she had saved for her wedding toward starting her comedic career. Franklin introduced her to a booker at the DC Improv, and Nathan now earns a living as a performer, teacher and theatrical producer; among the events she hosts is a monthly themed comedy show, “Fan-Freaking-Tastic,” at Chief Ike’s Mambo Room in Adams Morgan.
“I probably would never have gotten on stage if I hadn’t taken that class,” Nathan says.
In May, when it looked like First Class would close after nearly 27 years in business, many students mourned. They need not have feared being left adrift: Personal enrichment education — instruction for fun or self-improvement in a nonacademic setting — is booming. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “self-enrichment education teacher” is one of the 30 fastest-growing occupations, with employment projected to rise from about 254,000 in 2008 to almost 335,000 in 2018, a 32 percent increase.
The same economic factors behind an increase in job-specific education are fueling demand for enrichment classes, says Julie Coates, vice president for membership services at the Learning Resources Network, an international association of lifelong learning programs based in River Falls, Wis.
“Uncertainty is a big driver in sending people to classes,” Coates says. “Some enrichment programs are extremely robust because people turn to that as a way of getting away from some of the stresses in their lives and their anxieties, and it is an affordable way to rechannel energy.”
Lifelong learning grew out of the “free university movement” of the 1960s, a protest against structured academia, Coates says. Its ethos of connecting ordinary people who wanted to learn with people who could teach them led to the proliferation of nonprofit lifelong learning centers. Deb Leopold, a former dancer who grew up in Silver Spring, founded First Class in 1984. At the time, there were hundreds of independent lifelong learning centers, with those serving major cities such as Boston, Chicago, Denver, New York and San Francisco competing heavily for students. Leopold recalls visiting New York and seeing some of her stolen D.C. kiosks being used by another learning center. Her office was broken into, and her mailing list was stolen.
Soon, colleges and universities saw a market and started their own noncredit offerings. But as competition increased and their baby-boomer clientele aged, the independent organizations shut down or were subsumed by organizations such as parks and recreation programs, Coates says. Where there were probably 25 to 35 urban independents in the 1980s, Coates knows of fewer than 10 operating today, and, with Leopold retired, only one — the Providence Learning Connection in Rhode Island — is considered a leader in the field.
In greater Washington, parks and recreation departments — including those in the District and Arlington, Fairfax, Prince George’s, Howard and Montgomery counties — still offer a diverse menu of inexpensive classes, some costing as little as $20 for a one-session class. Howard Community College, Northern Virginia Community College and Prince George’s Community College have short rosters of such classes.
And many Washingtonians, for fun, take foreign-language and other courses provided by Graduate School USA, once affiliated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, near L’Enfant Plaza, or attend classes sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at American University and Montgomery College’s Lifelong Learning Institute offer classes designed for but not restricted to people 50 and older.
But, increasingly, personal enrichment education is purveyed by niche providers, which makes the inexpensive, single-session classes harder to find. Washington City Paper’s recent second annual class guide featured programs including Japanese language classes at the Japan-America Society of Washington and media production classes at Arlington Independent Media.
The trend toward market segmentation is also evident in the changes at First Class. After founder Leopold announced that she was retiring last year, David and Anna Bourgeois, who had taught voice acting for First Class and are part owners of Voicecoaches, a for-profit training company in Albany, N.Y., told her they would like to take over the nonprofit First Class.
David Bourgeois says the couple and their business partners want to build on the reputation for quality established by Leopold but develop a more focused “brand” to survive. While the old First Class always had a healthy contingent of entrepreneurship classes (“So You’ve Got a Great Invention? What’s Next?” and “Earn $1,200 a Day as an Independent Consultant”), the new First Class will focus on classes that help people supplement their income or start new ventures.
“More than ever before, people are looking at ways to take control of some component of their income, find something they can’t be fired from,” Bourgeois says.
But people enrolling in enrichment classes today are not just seeking economic diversion or security. “My strongest theory is that when people are feeling a little lost, down or disconnected they turn to the arts for self-discovery, for community, for empathy,” says Amy Moore, director of education and programs at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. In 2011, there were 931 registrations for adult classes at CHAW, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, up from 535 in 2008.
Staffers at SpeakeasyDC also cite the desire for community as a major attraction. The nonprofit group, known for its monthly open-mike storytelling series, started by offering one storytelling class in 2007; last fiscal year, it offered 18 classes and had about 230 students, with 300 more served through personal coaching and corporate training sessions. People use the classes not just to perform as storytellers but to learn to make better sales pitches, raise money, teach in academia, become less shy, or “be the life of the party,” says Amy Saidman, artistic executive director.
“They finish the class, and now they get together regularly for happy hour; or, another class created their own Facebook group,” Saidman says.
When she is not performing, Vijai Nathan teaches at SpeakeasyDC and has seen bonds develop firsthand. Students usually hesitate to take part in one exercise that pairs up people to talk about their first crushes. But they soon come to value the intimacy.
“I think there are so few opportunities anymore where we can do that as adults,” Nathan says. “With texting and e-mail, you hardly talk to people anymore, or even make any sort of human connection with people unless you are living with them.”
“The initial goal is to create new programming that will engage the store’s already loyal community of readers, but it would be great to attract new audiences,” says writer Susan Coll, who is heading up the effort. “Because P&P is a bookstore and not a university, we can be flexible and have a little fun with this.”
Among the eclectic slate of upcoming courses are a six-part class on Eugene O’Neill pegged to upcoming Arena Stage and Shakespeare Theatre productions, and a two-session class called “Close Reading: The Craft of Reading Fiction Like a Writer.”
Classes as community-builders are also offered by other local businesses, such as Hill’s Kitchen on Capitol Hill, which holds classes on topics such as knife skills and making baby food.
Meanwhile, the concept of community-building has led to the establishment of new groups that are providing free classes.
Hub DC describes itself as an incubator for “social innovators” and is connected to 30 groups worldwide. Last summer, it launched the DC Time Bank, a bartering system in which people join online and post offers of and requests for services. Many are tutorial; they include career-oriented skills such as refining a business plan, becoming Twitter savvy, or developing personal skills such as cooking vegan food, reading music, speaking Spanish or juggling. As of mid-January, 326 people had joined, and more than 30 hours of service had been exchanged. A physical space is planned.
Last summer and fall, more than 30 people total participated in Hub DC’s eight Citizen Circles, which are peer learning groups that aim to “knock down the notion that there are teachers and there are learners,” says Allison Basile, one of the founders. Basically, a group of as few as three people picks a topic it wants to explore and then does so, gathering and sharing research, discussing and taking field trips.
Knowledge Commons DC is a free school established to foster accessible education and community. People propose classes they’d like to teach, and the facilitators find somewhere they can hold them: in a park, coffee shop, gallery or private home. The instructors, some of whom teach for a living, love the flexibility of the model, which allows an element of “whimsy” not necessarily found in academia, says Lucy Burnett, a poet and one of KCDC’s facilitators.
Most of the 27 classes that were held during KCDC’s last session, in October, met in the evenings or on weekends. Participants took walking tours of abandoned buildings, explored orchids at the National Arboretum and studied investigative journalism techniques.
“Our underlying goal is to make people say yes to offering their knowledge, because everyone has something to teach,” Burnett says. “There is almost a spirit of gratitude and hospitality around these classes, and people have been so responsive to it.”
And so lifelong learning goes full circle, to the same impulses that spawned the free university movement.
“We’re at a time in history and culture where people crave community, and the existing education system is not very satisfying,” Burnett says. “I think that to have an opportunity for education to be voluntary and joyful and free is pretty profound. ... In a moment where the economy is so grim, it’s really meaningful to have community, because what will sustain you if not community?”
Lora Engdahl is a writer and editor who lives in Washington. Her last story for the Magazine was a profile of Washington writer and publisher Richard Peabody. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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