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'Virtual U' Brings the World to Your Connecticut Home

Richard Benfield, a retired Central Connecticut State University geography professor and Wethersfield resident, prepares for an online presentation about snow leopards for AARP's Virtual U series.
Photo by: Yehyun Kim

Richard Benfield, 70, has journeyed to Siberia and Kyrgyzstan and trekked around the base camp of Mount Everest in Nepal, searching for the elusive Himalayan snow leopard. 

He’s followed his passion for botanical gardens and national parks to the Middle East, South Africa, China, India and dozens of other countries. He’s embarked on many of these adventures after age 60 and is already plotting an exciting post-pandemic travel itinerary—eyeing the snow leopard habitat of Mongolia’s South Gobi Desert for 2022.

“Life doesn’t end at retirement,” said the Wethersfield resident and retired Central Connecticut State University geography professor. “Quite the contrary. It opens up a whole bunch of new things and different things which may even be quite adventurous.”

Benfield is recounting his worldwide escapades as one of several academics participating in AARP Connecticut’s new Virtual U online lecture series. Launched in January, the program is a way to help people stay engaged and connected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It builds on relationships that AARP has forged with area colleges and universities, including CCSU, Quinnipiac University, the University of New Haven and the University of Hartford, said Erica Michalowski, AARP Connecticut community outreach director.

Topics have ranged from sunspots to snow leopards to cold-case investigations; the last was part of a six-part training series with renowned forensic expert Henry C. Lee and the University of New Haven.

“We’re trying to give people that pathway and opportunity, no matter what age they are, to take that next step in learning,” Michalowski said.

Global gardens and more

AARP already promotes a state program allowing residents 62 and older to take courses for free at local colleges and universities. 

But the Virtual U series provides a bridge for people who want something more than a typical library talk and aren’t necessarily ready to commit to a semester-long course. 

For example, Benfield’s talk on national parks, which he will reprise in the fall, condenses his 15-week National Parks and World Heritage Sites course at CCSU into a 75-minute presentation.

Sign Up: America's Greatest Idea: National Parks

On Tuesday, May 4, at noon, he will present Around the World in 80 Gardens, based on his book Garden Tourism. And his popular lecture on snow leopards will likely return later in the year.  

Volunteer Harry Hom, 57, of Colchester, who helps run and cohost the presentations, said AARP aimed for a fresh, diverse lineup. “The fact that we got over 100 people for a lecture on gargoyles and goths was pretty cool.”

The free lectures, open to anyone, are offered via Zoom but are not recorded for later viewing. If a subject proves popular, AARP will have the lecturer back again, Michalowski said.

Other talks scheduled this spring include Finding Your Voice: Transformation Through Trauma, on Wednesday, April 14, at 1 p.m.; The East India Company: Big Business, Big Government, on Wednesday, April 21, at 7 p.m.; and “Mother of the Nation”: Gender and Nationalism in the Colonial World, on Wednesday, May 12, at 1 p.m.
Sign Up: The East India Company: Big Business, Big Government

A repeat of Finding Your Voice: Transitioning Through Trauma is expected this fall.

Find and sign up for other Virtual U lectures and more at AARP also welcomes potential ideas for additional lectures. Email or call 866-295-7279.

Natalie Missakian is a writer living in Cheshire.

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