“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.