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Episode 111: What is the Osher Institute?

Stella Mehlhoff dives into the Osher Institute, a learning community for older students wanting to continue their education.

MEHLHOFF: Hello all and welcome back to In the Know. As always, this podcast is dedicated to all things University of Minnesota. Today, I’m taking us into a pocket of campus you may not have heard of: The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. 

Before we learn more, here’s some context. It probably comes as no surprise that college campuses are very young places. According to the Education Data Initiative, 66.6% of college students are 24 or younger, and only 0.2% are over 55. 

That’s where the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, or OLLI, comes in. While there isn’t an age requirement for OLLI, it’s targeted towards older adults. Most of their students are 50 or older. According to their website, the OLLI mission is to “provide its membership of dedicated lifelong learners with a year-round curriculum of high-quality noncredit courses, as well as intellectually stimulating social, cultural and volunteer opportunities.”

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is housed within the College of Continuing and Professional Studies. Unlike the similar Senior Citizen Education Program, OLLI’s members don’t take courses at the University of Minnesota with other college students. Instead, they take classes through the institute that don’t have tests or grades. According to their website, this Osher institute is one of 125 others nation-wide, funded by the Bernard Osher Foundation. While each institute operates differently, they all aim to provide older adults with lifelong learning opportunities.

John Renwick and Elaine Heisterkamp are two long-time OLLI members.

RENWICK: Elaine and I have been in OLLI for more than 10 years. 

HEISTERKAMP: I pulled John into OLLI. My neighbor at my apartment, uh, was uh, retired and taking OLLI classes and doing wonderful things, and if I had a day off, she would take me along with her and I started getting involved with the classes. Then when I retired, I continued, brought John in, and it just goes by word of mouth. 

MEHLHOFF: I meet with Heisterkamp and Renwick over Zoom. Hesiterkamp is 73 and Renwick is 77. Heisterkamp leans against Renwick’s chair while we talk. They both are wearing blue zip-up sweaters.

They explain to me that OLLI offers all kinds of classes: from science to art to math to music. According to their website, OLLI operates in four terms a year. Each term lasts between five and seven weeks.

RENWICK: Well, we, we get this course guide once every term. You’ve probably seen it right? Um, you know, we just go through it and say, oh, that looks interesting, that looks interesting. And then —

HEISTERKAMP: Oh, I’ve had class from him before. I know he is really good. 

RENWICK: Um, I’ve had classes from him before. I won’t go back.  

HEISTERKAMP: That too. Yeah. Um, I’ve picked out 11 for spring already.


RENWICK: Eleven. You, you gonna do all 11? 

HEISTERKAMP: I don’t know. 

MEHLHOFF: They tell me about one of their favorite classes.

HEISTERKAMP: Um, oh, one of the classes I took was on butterflies and we could come to the University butterfly lab and look through those huge microscopes.

RENWICK: Well it was insects, actually. It was all insects that was.

HEISTERKAMP: So it was hands on. 

RENWICK: And, um, yeah, they have an insect library over there on the, on the St. Paul campus, which we got access to and we could, you know, and beautiful microscopes and learned all about insects and how to, how to identify different what families of insects. 

HEISTERKAMP: Oh, I go out in the backyard now and I, it’s a whole new world out in the backyard.

MEHLHOFF: To get more insight on the purpose of the institute, I also speak to the OLLI director, Kate Schaefers.

SCHAEFERS: I think this is, it’s an important thing that we as a University is offering within our community to welcome people of all ages to our campus and help them see that they belong here because, you know, we’re a public university and so we serve the people of Minnesota. And so serving people across those different pivot points in their lives and across the lifespan, I think is a really important responsibility for us.

MEHLHOFF: Schaefers says that a lot of older people are deeply curious, but are barred due to their full-time careers and other obligations.

SCHAEFERS: And so I think that people, as they see their lives open up a little bit more, are wanting to kind of fill up some of that time to explore some interests. And so I think there is this innate curiosity that people bring and we make it easy for them to indulge in that.

MEHLHOFF: But that isn’t the only benefit of OLLI.

HEISTERCAMP: My, my mother had dementia, she had Alzheimer’s, and I was up here and she was in Iowa and we talk, she’s fine, she’s fine. Little did I know she was alone and nobody came to visit her.

And that’s the thing about OLLI is that we can either Zoom or we can get together, but we’re still staying in contact. We’re still available if somebody needs to get to the doctor that can call us, we can take em. 

RENWICK: We, we, we, we look out after we, we look after each other a little bit.

MEHLHOFF: At OLLI, instructors are mostly volunteers. But the OLLI Scholar Program gives University of Minnesota graduate students a stipend to teach courses in their fields. Emily Schoenbeck, one of these scholars, teaches Shakespeare classes at the University and the institute.

SCHOENBECK: There are some people in this class where I’d be like, oh, you know, they’re probably at the age where you, you’re gonna go visit grandma and grandpa, you know, and don’t like worry if maybe grandma and grandpa aren’t as sharp as they used to be. And some of these people are like, oh my gosh, they’re gonna put me to shame if I had to be like in an academic debate with them. So, I guess it makes me more excited about the idea of getting old. So often when we think age, we start to think of all the things I’m gonna lose ‘cause I won’t be young anymore. And being with them is just such a comfort for like, no, like life just kind of keeps getting better. 

SCHAEFERS: You know, oftentimes older adults are discounted, and I think that we all miss out when we, you know, don’t pay attention to the talent that’s in that population.

RENWICK: We had a few classes on contemporary classical music or modern music, which is stuff that I’ve never been into, and, but I said, okay, I’m going to, I’m gonna, I’m gonna work on this. Maybe I can start to appreciate some of the, you know, the more recent composers. And it’s been very good. It’s really changed the way I listen to music.

I like to play classical music. I’m a cello player. Um, I never, never liked the modern stuff. But now I can. Now I can, I can do it. 

Um, but it’s, it’s a great thing. It’s just, it has, it has enriched our lives. I think, I can’t prove it, but I think it, it helps people live longer. I think I, I think it’s a life-extending thing. Sometimes people go into retirement and they don’t know what to do and they just die. And OLLI helps people not do that. 

MEHLHOFF: This episode was written by me, Stella Mehlhoff, and produced by Alberto Gomez and Abbey Machtig. As always, we appreciate you listening in. Feel free to email us at [email protected] with comments or questions. I’m Stella Mehlhoff and this is In the Know. 

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