From ghost-hunting to ballroom dancing, the U of M’s Continuing Education program
has something for everyone.
By Sara Hoover
What do gardening, self-publishing and sign language have in common? They are all
offerings in the U of M’s Continuing Education program, which provides non-credit
courses in exam prep, technology and leisure like wine tasting, photography and massage.
Since 1973, the program has served approximately 450,000 people and offered 10,000
sections of courses.
A self-supporting organization that does not receive any state or University funding,
it has had growing pains. The program, very much thriving again with 900 sections
offered, slowed significantly in the early 2000s.
“The program met with competition it had never had before: cable TV, the Internet,
new community offerings at churches, synagogues,” says Dr. Vicki Murrell (MEd ’88,
PhD ’05), director for the past three years. “Those challenges, plus moving toward
being totally self-sufficient, created a real budget crisis.”
In 2005, the University decided to cut all the leisure courses, like yoga and cooking,
to focus exclusively on professional development. The organization offers customized
professional development to businesses and organizations that include the U.S. Navy,
International Paper, FedEx and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
A year later Murrell took over “a program that had pretty much been decimated. It
was on life support.” The community perception was the whole program had closed.
Since Murrell’s arrival, leisure courses have slowly been added back, starting with
100 sections to the current 900 offerings.
Classes are held on and off campus, including the Jewish Community Center and U of
M’s Collierville and Millington Centers.
Revenue is generated solely from student class fees.
“We have to keep the prices at a fair market rate so people can afford them, but we
need to raise enough money to cover our other expenses,” says Murrell, now assistant
dean of Distance Education.
She hopes the growing leisure classes will make the U of M the first choice for non-credit
“We provide contact with the University that people wouldn’t otherwise have,” she
says. “It’s like the basketball ticket or the football ticket. If they leave with
a good impression, then that’s a good impression of the University overall.”
The expanding leisure courses consist of the usual suspects to the unique.
Hankerin’ for a hunka
In Melissa Petersen’s “Cheesemaking” class, participants learn to make fresh mozzarella
and ricotta. They are taught about various types of cheese and the basic principles
for evaluating cheeses and accompaniments that pair best with them.
Petersen, editor and publisher of Edible Memphis magazine, also teaches the popular “Knife Skills: Slicing and Dicing” course and
enjoys her cooking classes.
“The people who take these classes are ready to have fun in the kitchen, and they’re
OK with a mistake or an adventure.”
Held at the Memphis Botanic Garden, the hands-on course hosted Whole Foods for a tasting
while their curds set. Accompaniments included honey, preserves, nuts, dried and fresh
Petersen hopes participants learn that food is not just sustenance, but can be a hobby.
“While it’s not a passion for everybody, some part of it usually is. Either they want
to eat food that’s good for them or that’s good for the economy and the environment,
or they want to get their hands dirty and learn new things.”
Sherri McCalla, a volunteer, helped with the sold-out course because “it sounded cool.”
“I’d seen classes that Melissa has given before and she’s informative and fun. She’s
very concise but not dry, and she can make jokes. You’re not left wishing you had
learned something else instead.”
McCalla would recommend “Cheesemaking” to others.
“It was good food and good folks. You can’t beat it. It all equals out to good times.”
When there’s something strange, who you gonna call?
“How To Be a Ghost Hunter” teaches participants how to find and investigate haunted
locations. Students learn about types of hauntings, research and interview techniques
and how to identify a haunted “hotspot.” They discuss gathering audio, video and photographic
evidence, including EVP (electronic voice phenomena), infrared video and full-spectrum
Instructor Rich Newman has personal experience with the supernatural — he says he
grew up in a haunted bedroom, and he runs the ghost-hunting group Paranormal Inc.
In October, the class will go on a mini-ghost hunt of the old Brister Library haunting,
a female apparition who has been seen walking around the building for several years.
Newman hopes to impart skills, but also change the perception of ghost hunters.
“People watch the paranormal shows and think you have to be a psychic, a sensitive
or a really outlandish kook,” Newman says. “This is a normal person thing. Anyone
can move into a haunted place or experience weird things. It doesn’t take someone
with a parapsychology degree to do amateur investigation and figure out, ‘Is it a
haunting or not?’”
Participants don’t need to buy fancy gadgets: a digital camera and audio recorder
are the basic equipment.
“The best tool for ghost hunting is yourself,” says Newman. “Paying attention, keeping
your mouth closed and actually watching and hearing what’s going on around you and
documenting those things. So much of ghost hunting is about approaching things from
a scientific manner.”
Students dance the Fox Trot, Waltz and Latin styles in the “Basic Ballroom Dancing”
class with the help of instructor Patty Carreras.
The three-hour class includes warm ups, learning basic steps, specific dance instruction,
teamwork and free time.
The only thing students need to bring is a smile, according to Carreras. Comfortable
shoes and clothes are recommended.
“It’s ballroom styles, not competitive ballroom. This is a strictly relaxed class,”
says Carreras, an adjunct professor at U of M and also a professional actor, mime
Participants Dipti Gollamudi and her husband, Subba, “had a great time” in their first
Continuing Education class.
“It worked out as far as the timing and schedule,” says Dipti. “We’ve been thinking
about it for a long time. After 17 and a half years of marriage, I finally got him
to a dance class.”
Couples receive a discounted registration, but partners and experience are not required.
The Gollamudis found Carreras an easy lead to follow.
“She’s very specific, creative and really wonderful,” says Dipti.
The pair learned “that it wasn’t as hard as we thought.” Dipti recommends the class
to others and her favorite aspect was “spending fun time with my husband.”
Al Hazlerig, an auto service and parts supervisor, has taught “So You Want to Be a
Mystery Shopper” for eight years.
Mystery or secret shopping allows a company to find out if its stores are clean and
appealing, if its employees are helpful and what other areas need improvement.
“Most people mystery shop all the time,” says Hazlerig. “When you go to a store, you
critique the clerks. When you go to a restaurant, you critique the food, restaurant
and service. The only thing I teach you is how to get paid for it.”
Topics comprise how to get started, mystery shopping reports, how to get paid and
how to become certified. Hazlerig’s booklet, Introduction to Mystery Shopping, is included.
Even though “99 percent of the people that come don’t even know what it is,” the class
has been popular for years.
“The course just blew up,” says Hazlerig, who also taught “Introduction to eBay.”
“We had 50 and 60 people every time. For years, ‘Mystery Shopping’ and ‘eBay’ were
the No. 1 and 2 classes in Continuing Education.”
Hazlerig estimates 500 students have gone on to be mystery shoppers. Participants
need to be computer savvy since assignments, reports and payment are done via the
Just three credit hours shy of being a U of M alumnus, Hazlerig impressed upon students
not to fall for scams.
“You should never pay for mystery shopping; you should
get paid for mystery shopping. The companies offer mystery-
shopping jobs free and they pay you plus the expenses.”
Those wanting to learn a new skill can look no further than the “Beginning Crochet”
Stay-at-home mom Jessica Robbins is self-taught in the art of crochet, derived from
the French word meaning ‘hook.’ Having gone through the trial-and-error method of
learning, she wanted to give new crochet aficionados guidance. Participants learn
basic stitches, how to read patterns and create a scarf, baby booties and a change
For Robbins, learning on her own was a “rewarding but frustrating experience.”
“I feel very confident, but I realize how much easier it would have been if I had
had somebody demonstrate some of the things.”
The cost of the class covers materials. Robbins puts student kits together that include
yarn hooks, needles, and a pattern and instruction book.
The best part of the class for Robbins is the students’ “Ah ha” moments. “When someone
says, ‘I finally get it.’ Having the students accomplish something is definitely the
most rewarding because you see how excited they get about learning a new skill. The
students are there because they want to be, not because they have to be.”
Having never crocheted before, participant Michelle Kuehner wanted “to learn something
new.” Her goal is “to be able to do projects on my own,” the first of which will be
Robbins is planning an intermediate class since several students have asked.