For the last 10 years, Sharon Nelton has been getting into her car a couple of days a week and driving from her home in West Chester to school in nearby Exton. There, she studies film and teaches contemporary literature - and, at 78, has the time of her life.

What draws her, she says, is "a hunger for being around intellectual people."

Nelton is one of more than 1,000 seniors who take part in a lifelong learning program sponsored by Widener University, and offered primarily at an Exton campus.

The program has been a lifeline for many older students. But a sudden announcement last month that Widener would close the Exton site and move classes to its main campus in Delaware County has distressed the senior enrollees, most of whom cannot drive the distance to Widener.

They have launched a campaign to keep their beloved classes near home.

"We have built a really wonderful community of people who now know each other and care about each other," Nelton said. "This decision to go the Widener campus" - 30 miles away - "means tearing apart that community."

The program is part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, an "academic cooperative" that funds courses for seniors at colleges nationwide.

The Widener courses began 11 years ago, with about 100 members. But the program has outgrown its space in Exton. Because the university does not hold other courses there, the school can't afford the operating costs, said Shawn Fitzgerald, dean of the School of Education, Hospitality and Continuing Studies.

Widener plans to continue offering classes at retirement homes around Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties, he said. Meanwhile, it hopes to attract new students in Chester City. Moving to the main campus will "afford [seniors] a good number of opportunities that a stand-alone campus . . . did not," Fitzgerald said.

The Chester County seniors say they feel abandoned.

"This is their life," said Ed Goll, chairman of the newly formed Committee to Preserve Lifelong Learning in Chester County. "We had people crying."

The group has begun searching for a nearby institution to adopt it or at least provide class space.

"We sat down and said, 'We're going to make something happen. We can't let the whole thing die,' " said Tony Meluskey, a committee cochairman.

In the last two weeks, the group has found reason for hope. Community members have expressed interest in helping the seniors. The group says it is in talks with Chester County venues and expects to have a new home within weeks.

"The community, it's amazing how much they stepped up to this and how much they see the value," Goll said.

Jack and Lois Goodrich of Malvern are among those hoping the program can live on.

"Up until about six years ago, Lois and I used to spend winters in Florida," Jack Goodrich said, "but when we found [the program], we stopped going to Florida. It was more interesting."

The nonagenarian couple sign up for about five courses each term, they said.

Said Lois, "It has kept us very -."

"Young," said Jack.

"On our toes," she added.

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