When Gila Community College ended its 34-year relationship with Eastern Arizona College in the summer of 2002, more doors were closed than anyone imagined.
While EAC allowed seniors 55 and older to take classes tuition-free, its for-credit successor, Pima Community College, did not. Literally hundreds of seniors who had taken enrichment courses were shut out, and many were not pleased.
At the time, GCC's promise to address the situation with some other alternatives did little to overcome the sense of loss felt by so many. But the college made good on its promise, and a new noncredit program is rapidly winning back the hearts, and, most important, the minds of Rim country residents.
"There is still some hostility out there, and this is an answer to it," GCC Outreach Coordinator Sarah Nelson said.
Nelson, who used to manage medical practices, moved to Payson from the Valley in 1989. When she met GCC President Dr. Barbara Ganz, there was an instant synergy, from which the noncredit program was born.
"Dr. Ganz wanted me to own it in an entrepreneurial way," Nelson said. "She told me: ‘You design it; you own it; you manage it. As long as it pays for itself, we're happy.'"
It is paying for itself, and it continues to grow in popularity.
"Every time we offer a class, more and more people come out," Nelson said.
Next semester, 24 noncredit classes will be offered at a cost that most seniors can afford. While free courses are tough to beat, these affordable options are doing a good job.
It costs $42 per credit hour -- $126 for a typical three credit hour course. The fees for noncredit courses range from $7 for a 90 minute class called "The Truth About Home Security Systems" to $75 for a 30-hour creative writing or music beginnings course.
There's even a free event, "Poetry on the Patio," scheduled from 6:30-8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 10. Held every few months, attendees are encouraged to bring a poem or two to share or just come to listen.
Nelson explained the rationale behind the program.
"In a community college, you have the stand-alone academic program that leads you to a higher education, but then you typically have adult basic education and lifelong learning under the auspices of noncredit," she said. "Noncredit means there is no credit given for any class and it doesn't bring you any true value if you're looking to get a degree in something, but it's the type of fun and interesting thing you may do to develop a hobby, or it's something you're interested in, like, for example, you want to learn how to use a computer or how to quilt.
"Typically they're noncredit because they're not as lengthy as a semester, there's no tests, there's no grades, there's no required attendance, and it's your more fun things. You're developing yourself instead of your (resume)."
Computer courses are the most popular noncredit courses.
Offerings next semester include a three-part class for new computer owners that begins with "I Bought a Computer. Now What?" plus classes in Microsoft Powerpoint (a presentation program), Microsoft Excel (a spreadsheet program), Microsoft Access (a database program) and Microsoft Word (the world's most widely used word processing program).
Popular GCC credit program instructor Fran McPeek is debuting a three-part version of her Photoshop class next semester.
Another noncredit computer course sure to prove popular is "Internet Surfing."
"This is a two-hour session," Nelson explained. "You come and we give you about 60 different websites and show you how to surf around them.
"We've found that the new user to the Internet is afraid to punch a button and to say OK, or to press ‘Next,' or to press ‘Continue' because they think they're going to end up paying something, or someone is going to reach out of the computer and capture them. So we take them to some safe places to show them how to, for instance, shop for a car or shop for a book or even look for a new house in a new city."
Creative writing is another course that has proven popular. It's designed for people with all levels of writing experience -- or none at all. Students compete against themselves rather than others in the class in a supportive, nonthreatening environment. Some take the class to learn how to record family histories that might otherwise be lost; others just want to try their hand at creative expression -- either fiction, nonfiction or poetry.
Other classes included on next semester's schedule are a series of five workshops called "Music Beginnings" and a series of workshops on parenting entitled "Building an All-Star Family."
Because classes are noncredit, stringent degree requirements for instructors who teach credit courses don't apply.
"The only thing instructors need to demonstrate is proficiency in the area," Nelson said. "I encourage people to contact me. I am always looking for ideas for courses and for people to lead the courses."
Nelson envisions a day in the near future when noncredit courses will be offered all over the Rim country because the program has become too big for the community college campus.
"I think what we're trying to do is build some community spirit and community interest in the sense that we want people to leave their home," she said. "We want to give them every reason to come out and be part of the community college.
"That's why we're trying to offer so many diverse topics."
Nelson is willing to make presentations to groups of interested residents. To arrange a presentation or for more information, call Nelson at (928) 468-8039 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
GCC's website, www.gilaccc. org, also contains information on the noncredit program.
About the classes
The noncredit courses at Gila Community College start at different times over the next three months -- some begin in early January, others start later. The last classes in this group of offerings will be held in March.
Call (928) 468-8039 for additional information.