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Learning in Retirement Association Embraces Hybrid Era – UMass Lowell

By Ed Brennen
When Chancellor Julie Chen’s parents moved to the Lowell area from western New York several years ago, they joined the Learning in Retirement Association (LIRA), an organization that partners with UMass Lowell to offer retired and semi-retired people educational courses and social events.
“They were looking for a new community, and this group was very kind at the time in embracing them,” Chen told close to 130 LIRA members at their recent fall convocation at Coburn Hall.
Founded in 1988 in partnership with the Office of Alumni Relations and Office of Community Relations, LIRA offers courses, book and film discussions, guest speakers and outings to its members throughout the year. The group’s membership dues help fund five $1,500 scholarships awarded to outstanding UML juniors and seniors each December.
“You represent what we’re trying to tell all our students, which is that learning never stops,” Chen told members. “Learning is so important in terms of being active, being part of the community, and understanding and exploring new things that get you excited.”

A woman with glasses holds a microphone while speaking to a room full of people seated at tables Photo by Ed Brennen
Chancellor Julie Chen addresses members of the Learning in Retirement Association during their fall convocation at Coburn Hall’s Smith Ballroom.

On Sept. 30, LIRA welcomed back Jonathan Lemire, White House bureau chief for Politico and host of “Way Too Early” on MSNBC, for a conversation and book signing that’s open to the campus community at University Crossing. Lemire, who visited UML in 2019, is a Lowell native and son of LIRA Secretary Susan Lemire, retired coordinator of advisory services for the university’s Centers for Learning.
Like nearly all LIRA programming, Lemire’s talk will also be offered virtually on Zoom. LIRA moved online at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and continued with a hybrid model once it was able to resume in-person events last year.
“We actually had more members during the COVID shutdown, where we peaked at over 180, but that may have been driven by people desperately looking for something to do,” says LIRA President Peter Sebelius.
The new hybrid format, supported by the Information Technology office, has expanded access to membership, Sebelius says. People tuned in for convocation from Idaho, Texas and North Carolina.
“Now, when members move or enter a nursing home, or are recovering from illness, injury or surgery, they can still participate,” he says.

Three women with short grey hair smile while having a conversation with each other Photo by Ed Brennen
LIRA members can attend courses throughout the year that are held at University Suites.

Technology has also enabled LIRA to host speakers from around the world. Last year, they had guest lecturers from as far away as Japan and Venice, Italy. Retired UML faculty member Frank Talty, who used to teach LIRA classes on elections and the Constitution, now gives Zoom lectures from his home in Florida.
While Zoom has been helpful, Sebelius says in-person interactions are vital to the health of both the organization and its members.
“One of the most important things a person can do to delay the effects of aging is to maintain an active social life,” he says. “I have always thought LIRA was a social organization that also had lectures.”
This fall’s LIRA classes, which are held at University Suites, include a series on Native Americans in colonial New England taught by History Prof. Christoph Strobel. Lori Weeden, an associate teaching professor of environmental, earth and atmospheric sciences, is leading a geology walk in Littleton, Massachusetts, on Oct. 15, and Cordula Schmid, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, recently gave a talk on UML’s Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy.
Sebelius, who became LIRA president in 2019, says one of the best things about being involved with the organization is meeting the scholarship recipients.
“You read so much terrible news about young people nowadays, and then you meet the students at UML and realize — these are the people who are going to save the world,” he says. “It gives me great confidence in our future.”
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