FORT KENT, Maine — After 80 years, Lucian and Marie Theriault may never look at the night sky the same way again.

The retired Fort Kent couple is among four dozen area seniors taking part in courses — including astronomy — offered through a local senior college program.

“These classes expand your outlook,” said Marie Toussaint, 80. “You find yourself looking at things differently.”

That’s the idea behind the St. John Valley Senior College, a unique partnership among the University of Maine at Fort Kent, SAD 27 Adult Education and the Fort Kent Elderly Social Action Committee.

“We are the only senior college [program] in the state with all three of these constituents taking part,” said Peter Caron, SAD 27 director of adult education. “Typically these programs are partnerships between adult education and other University of Maine System campuses.”

But Caron knew if the senior college idea was going to fly in the St. John Valley, he was going to need the participation of the target students.

“We had tried to start a type of senior college program before but they never got off the ground,” Caron said. “We realized the missing element was having an active senior group on board.”

Working with Don Eno, coordinator of distance education and academic outreach at UMFK, Caron approached the social action committee and asked for its involvement.

Turns out, it wasn’t a tough sell.

“I remember thinking, ‘wow,’” Marie Theriault said. “This was something we needed to get serious about, and it’s proven to be more than we had ever expected.”

Her fellow students agree.

“It’s an unbelievable experience,” Sandra Plourde said.

At 66 years old, Plourde was referred to as “the baby” by some of her classmates and said the classes have opened up a whole new appreciation for the area and people around her.

“I took the Acadian history course with [local historian] Guy Dubay and it was so nice to learn about the St. John Valley and the history of my culture.”

It took some convincing, but Necia Daigle, 70, got hooked on the classes after taking a course in Positive Life Management with Gert Albert.

“When people first started talking to me about the senior college, I was not all that interested,” Daigle said. “But when I started the course with Gert it really opened things up and I love it.”

For the participants, the eclectic selection of courses is only half the program’s attraction.

“It’s the faculty that makes these classes,” said Lucian Theriault, 82. “These people are just unbelievable. Most are retired teachers who have a real passion about teaching.”

The Theriaults said the astronomy and earth science courses they took with Ben Paradis provide just one example.

“We were looking at rocks and stars our whole lives,” Marie Theriault said. “Now we can’t look at the stars or the Earth the same way.”

The word is spreading.

When the program started last spring there were 17 enrolled students. That number leaped to 45 for the fall semester, and Caron’s goal is a total enrollment of 75 for the spring semester.

“What intrigued me initially was the census data for northern Maine that showed a growing number of folks in our area 50 years old and older,” he said. “It seemed to be one area we were underserving, [and] we wanted to give them an opportunity for intellectual stimulation.”

For a $25 annual membership, participants — who must be 50 or older — have priority access to all courses offered through the St. John Valley Senior College.

This fall that meant classes in stained-glass architecture, earth science, computer technology, the Civil War, Acadian history, government and green energy alternatives.

Classes range from one session to eight weeks, and each carries a small tuition fee to cover the cost of books and class materials.

“We saw this as a great opportunity to expand our presence in the community,” Eno said. “At the same time, it’s encouraging people to come onto campus.”

Most of the courses are offered at UMFK, and Eno said they are designed to make the seniors feel a part of the university academic community.

Still, Daigle said, she and her senior classmates do tend to stand out among the more traditional students.

“On the first day of classes I came in and was not sure where to go,” she said. “One young lady told me she’d seen an awful lot of white-haired people going upstairs, and that’s how I found the class.”

The teachers, Caron points out, give their time voluntarily.

“We never look at our watches in those classes,” Marie Theriault said. “The time passes so quickly.”

Her husband agreed.

“There are some really good exchanges between teachers and students,” Lucian Theriault said.

“But you know what the best part is?” Daigle quickly added. “There was no homework.”

From day one, Plourde, who was last in a classroom in 1960 when she graduated from Fort Kent Community High School, said she was sold on the idea.

“I remember when Peter [Caron] came to the senior center to talk about this,” Plourde said. “I was really excited.”

With that kind of enthusiasm, it’s little wonder Caron sees no limit for the program.

“There is a senior college in Machias that has 300 members,” he said. “In four years’ time we could have a senior college with 300 members with the dynamic group we have around here.”

Whether in computers, history, culture or art, Plourde said, the classes are often the talk during lunches at the Fort Kent Senior Citizen Center.

Plans include a summer session aimed at area seniors who winter out of the area, a French immersion experience and online classes offered through the Maine Public Broadcasting Network and the Osher Life-long Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine.

Eno also pointed out there is more to the senior college than what is in the classroom.

“It’s as much a social interaction as it is academic,” he said. “That’s the real bonus.”

As for the Theriaults, Plourde and Daigle, they can hardly wait for the new session starting in April with courses from historic Fort Kent homes to painting.

“If you didn’t take part in this you missed something great,” Lucian Theriault said. “Don’t miss it again.”

For information on the St. John Valley Senior College, contact Peter Caron at the SAD 27 office of adult education at 834-3536 or Don Eno at UMFK at 834-7835.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.