The Pandemic Evolution of Road Scholar

Author: AB Staff

The Pandemic Evolution of Road Scholar


The year 2020 has become a year of survival for humankind. The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact has affected every one of us as we’ve adjusted our behaviors – staying at home, maintaining healthy distances when we have to go out, wearing our masks and being careful about any interactions we have with others. These changes in our behaviors have impacted a myriad of livelihoods and industries, from theaters and sports, to restaurants and hospitality, to travel and education, among many, many more. Road Scholar is, unfortunately, among those organizations that have been impacted the hardest by this global pandemic.

But, as difficult as these times have been, today I want to share with you a story of hope.

Every Road Scholar who has journeyed to the Galápagos Islands has learned first-hand about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. His studies of finches, tortoises, mockingbirds and other animals endemic to the Galapagos led Darwin to determine that those species most adaptable to changes in their environment have the greatest potential for long-term survival. Road Scholar would count as one of those adaptable species; we are an organization that has managed to tap into the creativity and experience of our educators and experts around the world to adapt to this new and unusual environment in which we find ourselves. This is the story of Road Scholar’s evolution in the face of unimaginably changed circumstances.

A History of Adaptation

Luckily, Road Scholar has the advantage of longevity and experience. We have been continuously evolving over our 45 year history. The Road Scholar of 2020 is very different from the original Elderhostel organization that was born in 1975.

That’s right, Road Scholar began as Elderhostel in the summer of 1975. That first season, just 220 pioneering participants attended the first educational programs we offered on a handful of college campuses in New England. Almost 45 years later, in 2019, Road Scholar welcomed more than 100,000 curious participants on thousands of programs around the world. What began as a collection of college-level courses for older adults who lodged in campus dorms has evolved to immersive, experiential and cultural learning adventures housed in a variety of accommodations, from a rustic retreat center in the Santa Cruz foothills to a 12th-century castle on a forested hillside in Dingwall, Scotland.

Road Scholar has endured environmental disasters, world economic crises and recessions, the after-effects of 9/11 and other global, national, and local disruptions around the world. With each challenge, we have learned, adapted and evolved. While there are many ways that Road Scholar is different from the Elderhostel of 1975, there is one most critical element that has not changed. Our mission has always been, and will always be to inspire older adults to learn, discover and make new friend within our warm, welcoming educational community.

And so, as the environment has changed once again — this time more drastically and rapidly than ever before — Road Scholar continues to adapt.

The 2020 Evolution

Our goal is to recreate the discovery and camaraderie of a Road Scholar experience through the power of the online virtual world. These exciting experiences are live opportunities that are just like the programs you’d usually have to travel to participate in. We have carefully and creatively designed these online adventures to give you the fully immersive Road Scholar experience:

  1. Live experiential learning with our expert instructors from around the world
  2. Meaningful engagement, discourse and social interaction with fellow participants that facilitates the friend-making that is a hallmark of a Road Scholar experience
  3. Deep, inspiring intellectual and emotional impact

“Our Adventures Online are interactive and engaging,” says Maeve Hartney, Road Scholar Vice President of Programs. “They feature direct interaction between the participants and lecturers and between the participants themselves. It’s a Road Scholar program without having to get on an airplane, bus or car to access it.”

From art history in Paris to espionage in Great Britain, Road Scholars can now continue learning and discovering from the comfort and safety of their own homes. Early reviews have been outstanding:

  • “Having mobility issues, I am unable to visit Paris in person. This was an excellent way to get an overview of the city.”
  • “This program was a great antidote to the COVID blues.”
  • “Road Scholar has been a lifesaver to me during this time of COVID-19. Their online learning programs have served as continuing education in areas I would not have probably chosen otherwise.”
  • “I feel like I learned a lot and I enjoyed being part of a new community, even in a small way, during this time of isolation.”

See our Adventures Online collection →

The Road Scholar campus has always been a campus without borders — a university of the world, with classrooms from the Louvre Museum to the African savanna. Now we’re bringing those classrooms to you.

Learn more about our Adventures Online, Days of Discovery and Virtual Lecture Series and how they’re all unique on our Virtual Campus .

The Future of Road Scholar

Having been delighted by the success of our pilot programs, Road Scholar is busy working to expand this course catalog of educational offerings to include fascinating topics and feature more beloved educators from across the globe to quench your thirst for learning.

In the immediate future, we are perhaps most excited about the development of our virtual civil rights program, which will mirror our deeply impactful Civil Rights Conference in February 2020. And, building on the success of our inaugural Paris Adventures Online, we are also working on a collection of learning opportunities focused on cities rich in cultural significance, from Madrid and Istanbul, to London and Athens.

As for the longer road ahead: none of us can truly predict the future. I expect the Road Scholar of 45 years from now may look very different from the Road Scholar we know today. Will lunar experts be taking you on field trips to the moon? Only time will tell. Right now, we are focusing on this exciting new initiative to create live learning opportunities you can experience without having to physically leave the security of your home.

Just like all of you, we, too, are looking forward to the day we can all safely venture out on the road again — to learn together in classrooms around the world. But we have learned something very important as we’ve evolved during this pandemic, and that is how powerful these Adventures Online experiences are in the lives of our participants.

Even before any of us had heard of COVID-19, travel restrictions, mobility issues, time constraints or budget limitations prevented access to Road Scholar’s travel programs for many lifelong learners. While we have learned how important these online experiences have been in battling the emotional and intellectual effects of social isolation during times of quarantine, we have also come to understand that those resources will continue to be vital for many folks within our community.

These extreme circumstances forced us to take on a challenge we have been interested in pursuing for years: how to reach older adults who cannot travel to a Road Scholar program. I am pleased we have now accomplished that, and we are committed to providing these online learning opportunities for years to come — even in a post-COVID world — to make learning more accessible to all.

I am proud of the creativity, innovation and commitment of my Road Scholar colleagues around the world. Despite limited time and resources, their dedication to you and to lifelong learning made these online Road Scholar experiences possible and opened adventures in learning, friendships and community to hundreds, and hopefully soon thousands, of lifelong learners. While this accomplishment is a testament to the adaptability and longevity of our team, it is also a testament to the trust and loyalty of our participants – all of you. Without your thirst for learning and willingness to try something new, we wouldn’t be able to continue pursuing the Road Scholar mission as effectively as we have. So, from the bottom of our hearts, thank you for your yen for learning, your willingness to try something new, your flexibility, adaptability and curiosity! We look forward to sharing many wonderful learning adventures with you, for years to come.