Public Affairs

OLLI: Super Seniors

Dec. 22, 2011
By Elizabeth Chapin

An OLLI class meets at Cal State Fullerton.University campuses are transformative: settings where limitless knowledge and a marketplace of ideas create critical thinkers. The CSU offers community senior citizens a unique opportunity to experience this thriving setting—whether they’re returning to a college campus after many years—or experiencing it for the first time.

Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (OLLI) at CSU campuses offer intellectually-stimulating, non-credit courses for older adults. With topics ranging from Nietzsche to navigating the web, OLLI classes enhance seniors’ social inclusion and help them keep in touch with an ever-larger and changing world.

OLLI programs at campuses emphasize the joy of learning. As a matter of fact, most staff members, all of the instructors, and every other helper involved in each CSU program are volunteers.

The OLLI programs are funded by the Osher Foundation, which in 2002, issued requests for proposals to the CSU and University of California systems. Today, nearly every CSU campus has a program.

The foundation awards annual operating grants of $100,000. Upon a program’s demonstrated success, the foundation considers establishing endowments of $1 million to provide permanent support. Through its generous grants and endowments, the Osher Foundation supports more than 100 OLLI programs on university and college campuses throughout the U.S., with at least one in each of the 50 states.

The seniors involved aren’t only benefitting from their classes, peers and volunteers. The campus environment and CSU students are very much part of the experience.

Retired Navy pilot Kip Cutter, an OLLI member and volunteer with the program at Sonoma State University, notes that the generation gap and the cultural differences between its members and “traditional” college students make for a unique, enriching experience.

The OLLI program at CSU Dominguez Hills partnered with a local high school to provide seniors with computer trainingThe generation gap Cutter refers to is often most evident when it comes to technology. And many CSU OLLI courses get seniors up to speed on the latest gadgets—to bridge that digital divide.

For example, last year, the OLLI program at CSU Dominguez Hills partnered with a local high school to provide seniors with computer training in CSUDH’s Mac lab. Tech-savvy high-schoolers taught them how to scan and organize photos, navigate the web, and send emails.

The roles are also reversed. OLLI members pass wisdom and expertise along to CSU students, who’ve been eager and appreciative to learn a thing or two from the “greatest generation.”

“Many of the OLLI members have retired from significant careers,” says David Blazevich, the Osher Foundation’s senior program officer. “When they’re placed in a university environment, they often feel the need to give back and share their valuable experiences.

“For example, a group of NASA retirees in one of the CSU’s OLLI programs volunteered to help mentor students majoring in the STEM fields,” Blazevich said.

Cutter described how OLLI members at Sonoma State teamed up with the campus’ American Language Institute, which is aimed at helping international students master the English language. The seniors volunteered to become English language partners with students—teaching them idioms, meanings, new skills and phrases to help understand the intricacy of English.

“One of the most memorable sessions was when we shared our favorite music,” Cutter said. “The students listened to some of the classics from our era: jazz and big band. Then we heard some newer things, rap and metal. It was a fun learning experience, and our generations have a lot to learn from each other. But we really have so much in common, too.”

OLLI and its members also give back to the CSU campus communities. Many members are CSU alumni and strong supporters of the universities and their activities—they’re attending sporting events, donating and volunteering.

“Were happy to see older adults begin to become active volunteers in campus and community,” said Blazevich. “In particular, OLLI’s partnership with CSU campuses has been very special.”

More information about OLLI and a list of CSU programs can be found on the Bernard Osher Foundation's website.