Live to Learn

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Chico State…

Learning never stops for those who take on the identity of lifelong learner. Sometimes, though, the opportunities to learn, especially with others, can feel limited for those no longer attending formal schooling. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Chico State is filling that gap for adults 50 and older, and is one of 125 universities and colleges across the country supporting the knowledge acquisition of older adults.

“The unique difference is there’s no homework, grades or exams,” says Ann Nikolai, Program Director at OLLI Chico. “It’s learning for the love of learning.”

Ann Nikolai, Program Director at OOLI Chico

Courses are set up on a semester system and are offered by volunteer instructors, many of whom have held teaching positions at Chico State and beyond. Some are still teaching, such as Lori Murphy Cole, a part-time instructor at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore. Learners pay a membership fee for either a school year or two semesters plus summer instruction.

Cole’s courses are available online to Chico members, and address topics such as Becoming Inclusionary, Intro to Cultural Geography, and Intro to Physical Geography. “I choose very current topics – global warming, gardening

and how to do things to take care of our biggest natural resource, which is water,” she says. “I keep them very, very current and I update all the time.”

Chico State has offered a lifelong learning program since 1988 but received its first OLLI grant from the Osher Foundation in 2007. At the time it followed a model of traditional in-person learning. This was challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, when many, especially older people, stayed home.

Retired Chico State Professor Roger Lederer, PhD, in the class on local wildflowers that he led recently with his wife, retired Chico State administrator and faculty member Dr. Carol Burr. Roger and Carol are well known for their books on Bidwell Park birds, trees, and flowers. He is the author; she is illustrator. Photo by Chico State campus photographer Jason Halley.

While the transition to online programming was sometimes clunky, it provided an opening that OLLI programs hadn’t considered before. An online platform meant that members could connect across the country and didn’t have to be confined to local offerings. “We could have been doing it pre-COVID, but none of us were comfortable with the technology. Now we are,” says Nikolai. “It’s been really exciting to see what other OLLIs are doing.”

As people return to in-person classes, OLLI is developing hybrid programming. Some classes are available in person, others have an option between in person and online, and still others are online only. The latter courses may be from volunteer instructors at University of Arizona and University of Richmond, or other OLLI programs.

“So many of our members who leave us do so because maybe they aren’t able to drive anymore,” says Nikolai, noting that the online offerings allow them to stay. “Zoom was a way for many members, who probably needed OLLI more than ever, to participate. Many really shuttered away with COVID protocols.”

One of the more popular offerings gives learners access to a wide variety of speakers in one course. “We do a faculty lecture series where each week the former provost, Sandra Flake, lines up a different lecturer,” says Nikolai. Flake’s wide range of contacts makes for an exciting and broad- ranging agenda as she pulls from more than 1,000 faculty members at Chico State. This hybrid class allows for either in-person or Ann Nikolai, Program Director at OLLI Chico online attendance.

OLLI instructor Debbie Vermette demonstrates collage techniques in a recent class on creating small collage books. Photo by Jason Halley.

Other courses include Aviation History: Bomber Barons over Europe in WWII, Skeleton Keys: How Forensic Anthropology Helps Solve Crimes, 24 Form Tai Chi, and Capitalism in China: Rise of a Global Giant, among others.

Nikolai speaks with great appreciation for the instructors who come to OLLI and the many who made sure it met the needs of learners during the pandemic, particularly

those who supported members in adapting to Zoom technology. “Our team is primarily made up of volunteers,” she says. “These wonderful people who have had these full lives and are professionals giving back.”

“I love meeting the people who are members of OLLI Chico,” adds Cole. “They are lifelong learners. I feel like we’re friends even though we’ve never met in person.” Cole says she is a relatively new instructor who began teaching when the pandemic started. “I just love it,” she says.

Nikolai would concur. “It’s about making connections with other people who share your similar interests.”•

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute •

About Melissa Mendonca

Melissa is a graduate of San Francisco State and Tulane universities. She’s a lover of airports and road trips and believes in mentoring and service to create communities everyone can enjoy. Her favorite words are rebar, wanderlust and change.

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