The Western Institute of Lifelong Learning Aims to Spark and Satisfy Curiosity

© Western New Mexico University

Mary O. Parker has worn a lot of hats in her professional life—as a teacher, a marketing researcher, a writer, and a business owner—but none have fit her quite as perfectly as her current position as the Executive Director of the Western Institute of Lifelong Learning (WILL).

“I was already a member of WILL and loved the organization,” explained Parker. “When the Executive Director position came up, I could have pinched myself.”

Reflecting on her previous career experiences, especially her many years in the business field, Parker said, “It is as if everything I did in the past prepared me for this position.”

Before taking the position as Executive Director of WILL, Parker most recently worked with her husband, a nature photographer, to run their business, Explore in Focus, which offers nature photography tours. “We have taken people all over the world to photograph wildlife and natural scenery,” said Parker.

In recent years, however, Parker began to miss the close-knit community she enjoyed for many years as a bookstore owner in central-Texas and wanted to discover and contribute to the community in her new home in southwest New Mexico.

Parker said that WILL has been instrumental in helping her to do just that. “As a business owner in a small town, I was really a part of the community,” said Parker, “and I have always been very community-minded. So now [as a member and now Executive Director of WILL], I am surrounded by 358 members, and about a third of them volunteer within the organization to keep it running. To be with those kinds of people is my dream come true.”

One of the challenges of the position, said Parker, has been finding a way to explain life-long learning to those unfamiliar with the concept. “I am still working on my elevator pitch to define what WILL is,” laughed Parker.

Describing the organization’s membership comes more easily for Parker. “WILL is for people who are curious and like to learn and don’t want to worry about having to get grades,” she said.

Parker explained that it is hard to define the organization without giving examples of the range of topics that can be covered by WILL classes. “It is not just about sitting in a classroom,” she said. “A lot of times it is about doing something, like a couple weeks ago we had a class on making spring rolls.”

“We have classes that range from history—and I am not talking textbook history,” said Parker, “We have local history, natural history, the history of movies. We have excursions. We do hiking. We do the Shakespeare ghost town and mine tours. … I am doing a class on how to pitch articles if you want to do freelance writing. Our technical support coordinator, Ha Chau, is doing a class on QR codes, explaining what they are about. Basically, think of anything that someone might be curious about, and there has probably already been a class or there will be a class about it.”

“Our courses spark your curiosity and satisfy your curiosity—that is what WILL is all about,” she said.

Asked which topics are most popular among WILL members, Parker said, “Art classes are really popular. Pickleball is probably our most popular course.” She also noted that the tours of the local copper mines tend to fill every time they are offered.

Parker said that on average WILL offers about 160 course each year. That large number is only possible because of the many members who volunteer with the organization, she noted.

Parker said that in addition to the large number of volunteers, there are some other features that distinguish WILL from other lifelong learning institutions around the country.  In particular, she said, WILL’s fee structure is unique. “We just charge that one yearly membership fee, and you can take as many classes as you can commit to taking. [In most other lifelong learning programs] you pay a membership fee and you pay per course.”

Parker is also bringing new vision to WILL as the Executive Director. One of the projects that she is working on with the organization’s volunteers is to make WILL’s communications more efficient and accessible. This spring the organization will be debuting a new website with a registration system that is easier to use, which will help eliminate the glitches that have made registration difficult for many members.

She also hopes to get more young people involved in WILL and to take fuller advantage of the organization’s position on the WNMU campus. “We just found out [recently] that we are being moved from External Affairs to the College of Arts and Sciences,” she said. “Our hope is that people won’t think of us as outside of the university anymore.”

Parker said she is grateful for the support of the university and especially of WNMU President Dr. Joseph Shepard. “He has really, really been supportive of WILL. … He is totally on board, and so is [Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs] Dr.[Jack] Crocker.” Parker said she is also grateful to Dr. Kate Oubre, Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who has helped smooth WILL’s transition to the Division of Academic Affairs.

The support of the university has encouraged Parker to look for new ways to spread the word about the great work being done by WILL. “My vision goes beyond Silver City when it comes to our reputation,” she said. “My vision is to get us well known in the state and possibly the nation for how remarkable we are and to bring pride to the university.”



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