To get an idea of how times have changed since UC Irvine Extension’s early days, consider this quote from a student that appeared Oct. 24, 1965, in The Orange County Register: The continuing education program, said Mrs. William Lee of Newport Beach, is “a welcome change from housework.”

In 2012, Extension will mark 50 years of helping adults launch a career, start a new hobby, obtain a valuable skill, engage in personal enrichment – and, for some at least, escape household drudgery. Since its inception, the program has evolved in step with American culture, but its overarching mission has remained the same.

“We’re changing our students’ lives,” says Gary Matkin, dean of continuing education. “Most [85 percent] already have degrees. They’re here to retool their skills or alter their career path.”

Extension came into existence before UCI opened, which is why its 50th anniversary celebration kicks off three years before the university reaches its half-century mark.

University of California President Clark Kerr wanted to establish “a substantial beachhead” in Orange County for the soon-to-be-built campus, so in 1962 Extension began offering classes through UCLA. Most were taught at Buena Park High School, where the program was initially headquartered. (Extension later had offices in a number of buildings at UCI before getting a permanent site on campus in 1985.)

Richard Baisden, UCI Extension’s founding dean, organized the first educational event to carry UCI’s name: the fall 1962 “Chancellor’s Lecture Series: In the Arts Today,” featuring talks by novelist Christopher Isherwood, choral musician Roger Wagner, artist Karl With and actor/producer John Houseman. Other big names followed, including comedian Carol Burnett, director Sydney Pollack, and actors James Whitmore and Mariette Hartley.

Extension now provides nearly 3,500 courses, with about 14,000 students taking two or three per year. The offerings change frequently to keep up with shifting trends, tastes and technology.

Early-1960s classes such as “The Soviet Challenge to America” and “Man in Space” reflected the nation’s Cold War fears and fascination with space exploration. During the ’70s – “the Me Decade” – courses focused on personal growth (“Contacting Your Inner Self,” “Transition & Self-Renewal”), while the women’s liberation movement inspired classes on “Dual-Career Marriage,” “Assertion Training” and “Women in Management.” (To help women succeed in the workplace, Extension opened the Women’s Opportunities Center in 1970.)

“We constantly have to go after the opportunities in front of us and get rid of those courses that aren’t producing,” Matkin says. “About 20 percent of our offerings have to be replaced each year. That means we essentially have a new program every five years, although some classes have been around longer.”

When the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, for instance, Extension saw its Internet courses take a dive and retrenched. Today, its most successful offering is the project management certificate program, aimed at professionals advancing their careers. Extension has certificate programs for teachers, paralegals, appraisers and others, as well as a corporate training program for companies worldwide.

“Certificate programs are our stock-in-trade,” Matkin says. “When people can get better pay or enter a new field, that’s when you get popular demand for our courses.”

Extension, which also runs UCI’s Summer Session and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, receives no state or UC funding and has a $30 million budget. Fees from participants in its International Programs make up about two-thirds of its support.

In the future, Matkin plans to reach more students via the Internet. Extension has already established a significant Web presence through its Distance Learning Center and the OpenCourseWare Consortium.

“We’re always trying to make learning more convenient,” he says. “Going to class one night a week is hard for adults with jobs and kids, so we want to offer more online.”

UCI Extension will mark its 50th anniversary with special initiatives over the next 10 months, including a soon-to-be-launched feature on its Facebook page that lets current and past students, staff and instructors share their experiences.

“I get comment after comment from former students saying, ‘Extension changed my life,’” Matkin says. He recalls one woman who earned paralegal certification while battling a serious illness – and while both she and her husband were unemployed.

“She graduated and got a job. Later, she told me the program was the only thing that kept her going,” he says. “These stories abound at Extension. The 50th anniversary is our opportunity to celebrate them.”