Senior citizens pursue their love of learning

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By: Melissa Fraser, Staff Writer

Students of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at USM may sit in class each week, but they’re not doing homework, studying for tests, or working toward a degree. Students attend the OLLI simply due to their innate desire and love of learning.

What began 20 years ago as a simple vision to provide a stimulating program for older learners, has evolved into a community with over 2,000 active members. The OLLI, located in the Wishcamper Center on the Portland campus, is one of 17 senior colleges throughout the state of Maine. OLLI enrollment numbers continue to increase as Maine’s senior population grows.

The Assistant Director of OLLI, Susan Morrow, states that Maine has the oldest-aged population in the country. “Portland is filled with healthy, active, intelligent people over the age of 50…for us, OLLI is the right program at the right time,” said Morrow.

In order to make learning accessible to people of all ages and capacities, there are no academic requirements to become a student or a teacher at OLLI. An annual membership fee of $25 grants students access to courses, workshops, national and international trips and special interest groups.

There are a variety of course subjects for students to choose from each semester, ranging from music and science to art and history. Each course is peer taught and has an enrollment fee of $50 with scholarship options available. The only qualifications that instructors must have is passion in their subject matter.

After moving to Maine from Massachusetts, Paul Doherty, a retiree from active ministry 12 years ago, began volunteering and heard about OLLI through his work with the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program.

Doherty spent his early years teaching music, then fell into broadcasting and later was ordained a priest. Today, Doherty is not only a student at OLLI, but a teacher and an advisory board member. With the options to teach everything from music to spirituality, he finds joy and gratitude in integrating all parts of his life to his course offerings.

If students interests are not piqued by the instructor or the course content, then they are not obligated to continue to attend that course. The enrollment minimum is 12 people per course and the maximum varies based on the size of the room and the teacher’s preferences.

Anne Cass, a retired school administrator, states that the OLLI community is extraordinarily genial and welcoming: “It’s not just on the campus: there are special interest groups, workshops. The variety that they have created is pretty impressive.”

A student, teacher and volunteer at OLLI, Cass has also found a group of friends that share common interests through The Bridge Club. Meeting off campus weekly, members come together to play a game that they love and socialize.

“The fact that so many senior citizens have intellectual and social outlets all in one compact place makes it a very special concept,” states Matt Goldfarb, a retired Maine lawyer.

Goldfarb enrolled at the OLLI as a student six years ago. Shortly after participating in courses he began teaching. Goldfarb is currently an active member of the advisory board.

“We all bought into this idea that each of us contributes what we can, particularly those in leadership. We do it for the joy of the associations and learning,” Goldfarb explains.

With the exception of four paid staff members, the OLLI operates entirely on volunteers. The advisory board members, office support, committees and instructors are there on a volunteer basis.

For many, OLLI offers more than a learning environment, it provides a community. It allows people to feel at home and part of a family, as Doherty describes. Regardless of status, capacity or ability; everyone is welcome.

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