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“A place full of interested and interesting people”: The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

Education is foundational to community life here in C-U, as the influences of Parkland College and University of Illinois are enmeshed in our everyday lives. With a community full of scholars and educators, and citizens of all ages looking for ways to continue learning, having a program such as the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) here makes a lot of sense.

OLLI is a program for community members ages 50 and above — most participants are retirees — where they can take various non-credit courses in subject areas that interest them. There are 124 OLLI programs around the country, three of which are in Illinois. The OLLI at University of Illinois was established in 2007. The name comes from Bernard Osher, a businessman, philanthropist, and art collector whose foundation provides a portion of the funding for the program. Here in C-U, the courses are taught by current and former University of Illinois faculty, as well as faculty from Parkland and Illinois State University, and there are also some community members who are experts in a certain field, and want to share their expertise with others.

Christine Catanzarite, director of OLLI at the University of Illinois, says it’s a “way to reach retirees and make living in Champaign-Urbana a great educational experience regardless of age.” Courses cover a wide range of topics, from “Deciphering the Cosmos” to “Introduction to Latin” to “Sports Films”. Catanzarite says it’s an opportunity to take all of those electives you wanted to take in college, but didn’t have time to.

Before Catanzarite became the director of the institute, she was an instructor. A film historian by trade, she taught four film courses and found how enjoyable it could be teaching a group of people with such varied backgrounds. “People asked great questions, people were really interested; it was just a very different dynamic than teaching undergraduates who tend to be 18-21 and have had fairly similar life experiences. All of a sudden there were people in the classroom who worked in industries that were adjacent to the film industry…they just had a different reaction to looking at films from the fifties and sixties than an undergraduate might.”

Those wishing to participate in the program sign up for an annual membership. It’s $150 for a full year. That includes a wide variety of learning opportunities, from lectures to film screenings to member-led study groups. Catanzarite describes the study groups as “smaller, more intensive and interactive discussion groups.” Groups may read a novel and discuss; she says some groups read The New Yorker or The Economist and discuss a couple of articles each week.

Only members can register for courses, and the four or eight week courses will have an additional fee, a small price to pay for the level of instruction that is offered. “An eight week is $40, but an eight week course taught by the director of the Beckman Institute is worth way more than $40.” In a typical year, there would be travel opportunities as well, perhaps taking a trip to Chicago for a show, but that’s obviously on hold for now.

Members also get a regular newsletter, put together by other members, and they also get to participate in developing programming and policies. “That was something Mr. Osher was really committed to,” says Catanzarite. “He likes the idea that people are members, but they are also part of the running of the institute.”

The programming for OLLI is understandably going to be different this year. All of the courses are going to be on Zoom, even Ballroom Dance. They’ve had some practice this summer with lectures and study groups, including a documentary film course. Participants watch together as a webinar, then gather in a Zoom meeting to discuss.

This fall there will be 29 classes offered, which is only slightly less than what they would usually have. Catanzarite has been impressed with participants’ willingness to adapt and learn new technologies, whether it be the instructors or a 90 year old student. “People have brought the same kind of curiosity and eagerness to be involved that they bring to in person classes.”

The new membership year just began, so those interested in participating can register now. One perk of online courses, is that they can accept many more people than in person, so all classes still have space for more students. Registration ends August 31st. Even with the switch to online, they are nearing 700 members for the year. The online experience also opens some opportunities for people to take more courses, because they don’t have to physically show up at a place. “It’s certainly helpful for people who might not be able to leave the house right now,” says Catanzarite. “It’s an opportunity for them to stay connected while still being part of a community.”

Catanzarite calls OLLI “a place full of interested and interesting people,” which is also a fitting description for our community as a whole. She maintains the OLLI here benefits from C-U being  the “best of both worlds. We have the big world class university with all of these resources…but we’re also a small enough community that our members know each other.”

Find out more about OLLI and register for membership at their website

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