These days when you want to learn how to do something, the answer is as easy as a YouTube video. Helen Hand, president of Colorado Free University in Lowry, would argue that while convenient, an important part of the learning process is lost by just watching a how-to video. “There’s a very special value in people coming together and sitting in a room, having actual human interaction, working to learn a skill,” Helen says. “We learn much better when we use all of our senses and when you’re in a group with other people; you’re firing on all cylinders because it’s interactive.”
For Stapleton resident Tiffany Anderson, the classroom format worked well when she pursued certification in digital marketing at CFU. “For the way I learn, being in a classroom helped enrich the knowledge and experience I got,” she says. “The class sizes were small so you received personal attention and the instructors were great and made it clear we could contact them with questions even after the classes were completed.”
CFU’s teachers are vetted and go through a rigorous application process. Some have businesses related to the subjects they teach while some are just passionate about the topic and want to share their expertise. Classes are not free, despite the name, but start at $25, depending on duration and degree of intensity.
CFU offers a variety of professional development classes as well as computer education in the school’s CompuServe building. But there are also plenty of other classes covering everything from cooking to art to mindfulness, which may be what most people think of when they hear the term “Free University.”
The concept started in the late ’60s and ’70s when more than 300 Free Universities flourished across the country, giving adults the chance to direct their own learning and not follow a set curriculum from an institution of higher learning. Helen Hand’s brother, John, had been the executive director of Denver Free University (DFU) in the ’70s. But in 1986, DFU closed due to financial distress. John operated the school out of his antique shop at Colfax and York Street. He realized adult education was his greatest passion so he closed his store and opened a new iteration of the school, Colorado Free University.
John focused on providing affordable, easily accessible learning, as well as opportunities for people to teach. Community was also an essential part. He believed CFU was meant to bring together people with the same question and people with the answer. “He [John] saw it as a network for people to share skills, knowledge and information, and in the process the community was strengthened and enriched,” Helen says.
When redevelopment started at the former Lowry Air Force Base—near John and Helen’s childhood home in Crestmoor—John bought the former fire station and opened a CFU satellite location and the John Hand Theater, now home to two in-house theater companies. Tragically in 2004, John was murdered. Helen took over as president, closing the Colfax facility and transferring everything to Lowry by 2008.
Helen is committed to continuing her brother’s mission and moving it forward. Students come from all over the Front Range, including surrounding states. One of Helen’s goals is to create more collaboration between CFU and the John Hand Theater for people who are interested in performing arts. But, overall, she says her goal is “to stay current while holding on to the values of community and face-to-face learning.”