|The UC Irvine Jazz Ensemble performs during the 'Jazz! Jazz! Jazz!' class at UC Irvine's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
By Katherine TamA couple of classes was all it took. Leah Jordan was hooked.
She had discovered UC Irvine's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute through a friend, and was drawn to its medley of classes and the opportunity to learn alongside others with equally inquisitive minds.
"I was enthralled with the academic format and the variety of interesting courses that were offered. It was like a magnet for me," Jordan said. "Having been a teacher for 34 years, I'm always hungry for knowledge. Learning is an essential function of living. When you retire, it often doesn't occur unless you make it occur."
That was about seven years ago. Today, Jordan is an avid ambassador of OLLI at Irvine, spreading the word to others.
Six other UC campuses — Berkeley, Davis, Los Angeles, Riverside, Santa Cruz and San Diego — also offer OLLI courses through UC Extension, giving retirees a venue to keep stimulating the mind past the age of 50.
"It renews your energy and gives people who don't want to sit around a reason to go somewhere," said Jordan, who has served on Irvine's board of directors for six years. "Even if you learn one new tidbit of information, it's pretty neat."
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While most UC Extension programs focus on professional development and certificate programs, OLLI is about learning for the simple joy of it — with no exams, grades or term papers to write.
"It's all about enriching the intellectual and cultural lives of our retirees," said Sandra Richards, director of OLLI at Riverside, which offers classes at three locations. "Members value the networking they get with other like-minded individuals who are here to learn."
UC retirees, as well as the general public, are welcome to enroll in OLLI classes. Membership fees and course fees vary by location.
Michael Williams, who worked as a technology specialist at UCLA Extension for 45 years before retiring last year, has taken a variety of OLLI courses that range from astronomy and French art to jazz and the history of the Beatles.
"All the classes I've gone to re-energize my mind. I love it," said Williams, who is 65. "It has really made a difference in my retirement. I'm able to go and learn about new things. Going back out to the university and being a part of it again just makes me feel connected."
The UC OLLIs are part of a larger network of 117 institutes nationwide that offer lifelong learning courses for people over age 50.
But each UC institute has its own structure and makes its own choices on the curriculum. Some, such as UCLA, have a paid staff including program directors to lead the institute; others such as UC Irvine are run almost entirely by volunteers. Courses vary in length and often cater to the demographic they serve. For example, some have hefty offerings of science while others have a robust selection in the arts. Some locations also offer day trips to the wine country, a local observatory and other sites.
OLLI at UCLA, for example, offers a generous dose of science and history because that's what members want, program manager Valari Kirkbride said.
"We send course evaluations to our members and they let us know what are their topics," Kirkbride said.
The opportunity to teach students who come by choice, rather than to fulfill a course requirement, appeals to instructors too.
Susan Hoffman, UC Berkeley's OLLI director, sees it as a two-way connection between the campus and its neighbors. OLLI, she says, gives older adult learners a university-sponsored public arena in which they can create a "community of engagement and collaboration," while providing Berkeley faculty, postdocs, graduate students and visiting scholars the opportunity "to teach what they love" to classrooms of highly-educated, highly-motivated older students.
Launching an OLLI is no easy feat. In 2003, the Osher Foundation seeded a Berkeley outpost under an arrangement that requires new OLLIs to hit specific membership benchmarks. Berkeley did not reach the benchmarks, and the program went on hiatus after two years.
Campus administrators and experts developed a new program model, and Hoffman, a founding director of OLLI at San Francisco State University, was hired to guide it. OLLI at Berkeley was reborn. Today, it bustles with about 1,200 members.
At each location, leaders rely on a host of strategies to keep the institutes thriving and to continue to draw new members. OLLI at UC Riverside is offering free membership and one free class for the fall starting Sept. 12 to newly-retired UC Riverside staff and faculty. The value of that package is normally $55.
"We want to give people the opportunity to learn more about our programs so they know that when they retire, they have a place to go to continue their joy of learning," Richards said.
For George Hersh, a psychologist and active 75-year-old student at OLLI in Berkeley, membership has undeniable benefits. But with success comes challenges too.
"The general quality of classes is climbing," he explains, "and you're faced with agonizing choices."