Alums dig DS for Life

Participants in Yale’s new Directed Studies for Life program often preferred doing course reading to attending the program’s social events.
Participants in Yale’s new Directed Studies for Life program often preferred doing course reading to attending the program’s social events. Photo by David Burt.

This summer, Yale students trying to earn extra credits or preparing for study abroad trips weren’t the only ones cooped up in the classroom.

A cohort of 14 Yale parents and alumni — plus one alum’s spouse — ranging in age from roughly 30 to 90 gathered on campus for two weeks in May to pore over Greek texts as part of the Directed Studies for Life course. Participants and seminar leaders spoke highly of the new program, which administrators said will repeat next year — perhaps along with an additional unit on Romans and the Middle Ages.

“I was just astounded at how hard these people were willing to work,” said Pamela Schirmeister ’80 GRD ’88, director of the program and an associate dean for Yale College and the Graduate School. “They really came here for the intellectual intensity.”

Schirmeister said 23 people signed up for the program, which was designed to house up to 36 people in Swing Space. Only 15 people ultimately paid the $6,500 fee and attended the program.

The unfilled slots did not concern Schirmeister, who said she could not predict participant demand during the program’s first summer. She added that she has not yet determined how many spaces will be available next year.

Schirmeister and the seminar leaders for the program are considering shortening the course so that participants do not have to leave their jobs for two weeks, particularly since the majority of this year’s participants were not retired.

Interacting with fellow students was a highlight of the program for several of the participants. Andrew Lipka ’78, an ophthalmologist from New Jersey, used Google Groups to provide a forum where he said members of the program, which students nicknamed “DS4Life,” still keep in touch and discuss political issues. Sometimes, he said, they refer back to the classics they studied over the summer in their debates.

Lipka said that 14 of the 15 participants have joined the private online group.

At the conclusion of the program, Schirmeister said instructors received “extremely positive” evaluations. The most common complaint was that the program included too much social time: Participants were treated to several high-end dinners and a sailing trip on the Quinnipiac River, among other activities.

“They preferred to be in the dorm doing their work!” Schirmeister said.

Lipka acknowledged that some of the dinners extended long into the evening, but he said it was because alumni “were engaged with the faculty and each other.” Jane Levin, director of undergraduate studies for Directed Studies and a seminar leader in the summer program, said classroom discussions also tended to last longer than their allotted time.

Levin and the other two seminar leaders, humanities lecturer Norma Thompson and diplomat-in-residence Charles Hill, said discussions in Directed Studies for Life were distinct from those in freshman classrooms.

“These were people of real stature who have done a lot and achieved a lot in life,” Hill said. “They ask questions that are in many ways grounded in their very wide experience — they throw a different kind of light on the issues.”

Participant Carmen Medina, president of medical consulting firm Precision Consultants, Inc. and the parent of a Yale sophomore, said the experience changed the way she approaches business decisions. Now, she said, she resolves professional problems “at a higher level of consciousness.”

All three participants interviewed said they would consider returning next summer to cover the next part of the syllabus, which would include texts by Virgil and Dante.

“I’d go back in a New York minute — read 11 books in 30 days and juggle work and classes — just to have another transformative learning experience of this kind,” Medina said.

This summer’s participants read books such as “The Republic” by Plato, “Metaphysics” by Aristotle and “The Odyssey” by Homer.

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