By Steven Mihailovich
A variety of topics — ranging from Dante’s “Divine Comedy” to Earth’s magnetic field — are part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s (OLLI) schedule of courses, now open to registration for the fall quarter. Located at the UCSD Extension campus, some 650 members strong, OLLI will offer nearly 200 classes over the 10-week quarter beginning Sept. 26 and running until Dec. 2. There will be an orientation day for the public from 9:30 to 11 a.m. on Sept. 24.
The courses are strictly for individuals, ages 50 and older, and the entire program is designed and operated by its members. According to OLLI president Reed Sullivan, the trait makes the classes a pleasure instead of an obligation.
“This isn’t a university where you text during class, look for a date, and go to sleep,” Sullivan said. “These people are here because they want to be, not because they have to be. Some have more experience than the professors do.”
That experience underpins the whole program, with about half of all lecturers coming from the membership, Sullivan noted. For example, a class this fall on the catastrophe at the Fukashima nuclear power plant in Japan will be discussed by a panel of three nuclear scientists who are members of OLLI.
Lecturers are also recruited from the UCSD staff and other universities, as well as from prominent national speakers on tour, Sullivan said, with lecturers paid a fee from the OLLI budget, which totals $228,000 this year.
Topics to nudge the noodle
“It’s generally correct that it’s the lecturer who drives the popularity (of the class),” Sullivan said. He added that a 10-member curriculum committee selects the courses and lecturers, with subject matter divided into four categories: Law and Society, Science and Medicine, Art and Humanities, and International Relations.
“We’re trying to integrate what’s happening in the world with some explanations about it,” Sullivan said. “Some people prefer courses that are entertaining, such as music. If you come to a lot of classes, you can kind of tell which ones members like most. First of all, the class is full, and second of all, the question-and-answer period is animated.”
Burt Levine of La Jolla has been a member for 13 years and coordinates the Current Events courses. While discussions can become heated over topical issues, Levine said all classes are much more involved because of the quality of attendees as much as lecturers.
“You reach a stage when you’re not embarrassed to ask,” Levine said. “Some questions come out of right field and sometimes it can give you a whole new perspective. We have an informal rule to hold your questions until the lecture is complete. Because once this group starts with questions, it stops the lecturer cold.”
Aside from Current Events, controversial issues are also explored in other forums, including Inside Politics, Town Hall, and the Debate Series, which will examine euthanasia and nuclear power this fall.
The Master Class series, which scrutinizes the various aspects of a single issue every other week, is the most popular by far, Sullivan asserted. The two Master Class topics this fall are titled “Israel: Past, Present and Prospect,” and “Lining Up for Revolution in the Arab World.”
“We charge $10 to limit the amount of people,” Sullivan said. “This way, we can ensure that everyone gets a seat.”
Learning leads to laughter
If OLLI appears like more work than fun, then a look at its other offerings, such as Friday live concerts, a theater group, Wednesday cinema viewings, day excursions, potluck luncheons, and even a Saturday morning bridge club, should alleviate that concern.
Although founded five years ago through a $1 million grant from philanthropist Bernard Osher, Sullivan said OLLI was built upon the adult learning program that has been in place at UCSD under various designations for the past 38 years. The average age of members is 70-75 years, with some members in their 90s.
“About 80 percent of those who join, stay,” Sullivan said. “We lose people for health issues more than any other reason.”
The variety of subjects covered by OLLI motivates most members to join, according to Janice Shulak of Carmel Valley, a member for the past nine years. She believes the courses not only improve her knowledge, but her health as well.
“When you get older, you worry about your brain deteriorating,” Shulak said. “This exercises your brain. It’s definitely interesting.”
Yet OLLI is not just a way of learning, but a way of life, for 18-year member Marcy Goldstone of La Jolla. By meeting over mutual interests, many members eventually expand their contact beyond the classroom by going out together and visiting one another’s homes, with some participants even becoming couples.
“We care about each other,” Goldstone said. “It’s the caring. We become friends.”
With Americans today living longer than ever, spending nearly as much time in retirement as in their careers, OLLI provides two-year member Jerry Kent of Santa Fe Valley perhaps the best possibility to catch up on missed opportunities.
“The best part is the growth one can achieve by attending the various classes,” Kent said. “When you go through your career, you’re always coming across things that interest you and you wonder, why don’t I pursue this? And the reason, of course, is you don’t have time. Now you have time and they have a wonderful variety of classes — everything from brain science to poetry — and there are no exams.”
If you go
Osher Lifelong Learning Institute
Rubinger Center, Building D, 9600 N. Torrey Pines Road and Muir College Drive, UCSD Extension campus
Classes are Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m. to noon and 1-3 p.m., Sept. 26-Dec. 2
$240 annual membership or $150 per quarter. Fee does not include parking.
9:30-11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 24. Open to the public.