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The Mass Media

LETS Learn About the Gerontology Institute

Audience members at one of the forums LETS and the Gerontology Program sponsored over the summer.
Wichian Rojanowan
Audience members at one of the forums LETS and the Gerontology Program sponsored over the summer.

Many at UMass Boston may recall the series of forums over the long summer which brought many of the candidates for governor to speak here. On Tuesday, September 10, Wichian Rojanawon, the director of the Life Enrichment Through Studies (LETS) Program and senior program developer and policy analyst of the Gerontology Institute, sat down with The Mass Media to discuss exactly how those forums came about.

In the Wits End Cafe right across from the Institute, with soft Rod Stewart music trickling into the air, Rojanawon explained the format of the forums, as well as describing his experiences and impressions of the candidates’ campaigns.

“I have to go back and explain a little about the Life Enrichment Through Studies program,” he began, “… the LETS program is a learning in retirement program for people 50 and older. People have to become members, pay an annual fee. Most members are in 60-70 range, and they come from over 50 towns and communities near the campus, mainly the South Shore area, Dorchester, South Boston, Quincy. And right now we have about 260 members, and it’s only our fourth year. It’s one of the programs of about 17 programs in Mass., but it’s the only program located and supported by a public university in the Boston area.”

A non-credit course, LETS participants are able to establish their own syllabus. “We have different committees,” said Rojanawon. “And one of the committees is the curriculum committee where members can volunteer to serve as a member of this group, and they can decide what they want to learn and how to find the instructors. So we have two programs: One is a regular non-credit course, which I mean, we offer short-term workshops about 5-13 weeks depending on different workshops. And another program we have is what we call a Brown Bag Lunch, where we have more like a monthly lecture series, and they invite experts in different areas to come to talk with the members. And the gubernatorial candidate forums came about because of the curriculum committee members’ suggestions, that this an important year, you know, an important time for the state. We’re going to have a new administration and whatever will come about after November will affect everybody, young or old, and we need to learn more about who will be our next governor.”

So Rojanawon started to make phone calls, sending e-mails and letters to each of the candidates, inviting them to come to talk. He tried to schedule for them to come at the same time on a given day, but problems soon arose, such as the issue of space, or time conflicts with LETS members. Finally, it was decided to invite the candidates one-by-one, as part of the Brown Bag Lunch. “At that time we thought it might be easier to have them one at a time,” Rojanawon continued, “so we may question them on their issues. And the candidates liked it, they wanted to come and give their speech. That is more acceptable for them anyway.”

“Some of them are more receptive to the idea than the others,” he said, declining to name names. “You can feel that some were more organized than the others. One campaign, when I called, they gave me the home telephone, the residential telephone number of the candidate! You can tell how they manage their campaigns. Some of them are very organized, very efficient. You know, you send them e-mail, five minutes, they write back to you. ‘Yes, send me the details.’ Boom. I send them the details, the next day, the deal is done. Some of them, you have to call them, to kind of convince them that we are a legitimate group here and we will bring hundreds of people here. The first few times it didn’t work.”

But Rojanawon was persistent. “What I did was, I mean, I think it’s legitimate. I got a few acceptances from two candidates. Like say, from the first one. So I will call the second one, and say ‘So-and-So already accepted the invitation’, and then I’ve got two. Then I call a third one, say, you know, ‘Two have accepted the invitation.’ And then I’ve got three. Usually it works. However, it depends on their strategy, you know, on what they want to do and what they think we are.”

“Right now, we are trying to have Mitt Romney [Republican gubernatorial candidate] come, and he will be the last major candidate who hasn’t come.” Rojanawon said he sent an invitation, as well as several phone calls and sent a follow-up letter with articles from The Mass Media that covered the forums Senate President Tom Birmingham and Steve Grossman attended. “I just spoke with his campaign staff yesterday. They can’t give us any commitment. So I don’t know if they are going to come or not. And I think that was the last call. This was the third call already.”

Speaking of the members of the LETS program, Rojanawon said, “These are serious adults. Most of them are volunteers in their communities, and they’re very interested in politics. And they come from so many different towns and communities. They can tell their friends and neighbors, and that’s how, you know, politics works. Through word of mouth. That’s the best way.”

Once the invitations were accepted by other campaigns, Rojanawon described the challenges that lay ahead: “Now, how do you bring the audience? How do you bring the masses?”

“There are many factors. The time, the format, the location, the candidate itself. And we wanted it open to the public. We wanted students and staff to attend. It’s not just for us. It’s for the community. People should learn as much about each candidate. It doesn’t matter if you support a particular candidate or not. You don’t want to hear all these T.V. ads, which is nonsense, because you don’t learn a thing from those T.V. ads.”

The format was established to give the candidate a half-hour talking whatever they wanted to talk about, but issues pertaining to older people were encouraged, and a question and answer period followed. Some followed the format, some didn’t. “Some went off on whatever their agenda was at the time,” he said, laughing.

“To expand our audience, we invited six organizations working with older people in the Boston area to co-sponsor the event. The idea is to have at least one representative from these co-sponsoring organizations to ask questions. So we invited AARP, Mass Home Care and so forth. They sent representatives to ask questions. It worked out pretty well. Even then, the majority of the audience were the LETS members. I am a little disappointed we didn’t have that many students and faculty and staff members attending each forum. Each forum we had, we had a few, sometimes four or five students or faculty. That’s not many. We had almost a hundred people, depending on the candidate.”

“Like Birmingham, Reich, and Shannon O’Brien we had a lot of an audience, closer to a hundred. And then, you know, Tolman, and Jill Stein, they came the same day, and particularly Grossman, had a small audience. That reflected the popularity of each candidate. As you see, Grossman finally dropped out.”

“It was a success in a way that they came. I wish we had more people, more of an audience. More students and faculty and staff. But it’s hard, during the summertime. The first one started I think before graduation during the exams, and it went to the end of summer. So there were less people around campus.”

“Overall, I think it was well-received,” he said. “The people who attended enjoyed it. They said they learned a lot about each candidate, particularly in the question and answer sessions. And some of them would even call me later and say, ‘Can I call their campaign to volunteer?’ because they are so impressed with the candidate.”

Rojanawon called it a “rewarding experience,” being able to see the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses through the campaign staff. “I’ve never done candidate forums before, even though I worked with the State House and organized several legislative forums in the past. It’s different than this series of candidates.”

When asked would he do it again if given the chance, Rojanawon responded enthusiastically. “Oh, yes. Definitely, I would do it again. I think this is a very important event which happens every four years.”