Dynamic campus program for students over 50 gets major support

A University of California, Berkeley, program growing ever more popular with students over age 50 has received a major boost from a second $1 million endowed gift from The Bernard Osher Foundation. The gift will allow the campus’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI @Berkeley) to better reach this population, whose learning needs are not always met by the traditional teaching environment.

Lauren Carley leads a chorus of OLLI @Berkeley members in the Joy of Singing class.

Lauren Carley leads a chorus of OLLI@Berkeley members in the Joy of Singing class at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

“With this endowment gift, the Osher Foundation has recognized not only the impact that we are having on educating the full spectrum of mature adults, but also the many ways that members of our local community and our colleagues from across the campus have generously contributed to OLLI’s remarkable success and growth,” said Susan Hoffman, director of OLLI @Berkeley. The program, which received its first $1 million endowment gift from the foundation in January 2010, saw a 43 percent jump in membership last year alone. More than 1,200 students now attend, and demand is growing every term.

OLLI @Berkeley offers affordable six-week courses, a weekly lecture series, and a variety of social opportunities built around learning that take place near campus in downtown Berkeley. There are no exams or grades. Distinguished UC Berkeley faculty and others share their research and interests with students, whose experience and wisdom often enrich the discussions.

The Osher endowment will help fund a full-time classroom and events manager, who will ensure smooth operations at OLLI @Berkeley venues, manage the instructional technology that supports teaching and learning, and carry out new accessibility measures, such as the latest loop technology for people with hearing aids.

The foundation’s commitment is an important vote of confidence in the program and paves the way for its expansion and permanence.

“Knowing we have the endowment makes it easier for OLLI to commit to a summer term as well and a new venue in Lafayette,” says Aileen Kim, OLLI program coordinator. “We’ve expanded our program to 22 weeks of courses and 14 weeks of activities that we call interest circles, all of which cover nine months out of the year.”

“The nature and variety of educational opportunities that the Institute offers for older adults is impressive, said Mary Bitterman, Osher Foundation president. “We salute UC Berkeley’s faculty and leadership for actively supporting the program’s development and congratulate the institute’s fine staff and dedicated cadre of volunteers on their success. We are delighted to provide this additional support.”

Redefining adult education

“Confronting stereotypes about the intellectual openness and capacity of older adults, OLLI @Berkeley brings a high degree of academic rigor to its curriculum,” said Hoffman.

The program is strengthened by collaborations with diverse UC Berkeley departments, centers and faculty that yield courses and events on cutting-edge topics ranging from the roots of the Tea Party to how game theory works in video games. The program also has ongoing partnerships with arts organizations in which students meet directors, conductors and performers to learn about the creative process — and then see live performances of the shows that they discussed.

The curriculum is also meant to engage participants in self-reflection and enhanced living. It has held courses on optimizing the body’s capacity for healing, writing a memoir and cultivating personal strengths.

“These types of programs and collaborations are integral to OLLI’s encouragement of new pedagogies and valuable experiences with new ways of thinking,” said Hoffman, pointing to a current course on synthetic biology that was designed in part with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In that course, members leave wearing vials of their DNA around their necks on the first day and participate in ethical arguments with a noted medical scientist and ethicist.

The partnership with the Osher Foundation makes possible myriad benefits to OLLI @Berkeley participants, the UC Berkeley campus and the city of Berkeley, according to Hoffman.

As part of their own commitment to rigorous learning opportunities and to giving back to UC Berkeley, OLLI @Berkeley members are underwriting 12 episodes of “Conversations with History,” a critically acclaimed campus program produced and hosted by Harry Kreisler, that will become the centerpiece of an upcoming course in the program.

Because most of the OLLI classes are taught at a venue in the heart of downtown Berkeley’s arts and commerce district, city businesses also benefit from the influx of up to 800 OLLI members each week.

Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes can be found on the campuses of 116 colleges and universities from Maine to Hawaii and Alaska. Each provides a distinctive array of non-credit courses and activities specifically developed for adults over age 50 who are interested in learning for the joy of learning.