Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Turns 10

Scott Van Voorhis | February 11, 2010
These are just a few of the 700 OLLI members. Photo by OLLI facilitator Archana Prakash.

These are just a few of the 700 OLLI members. Photo by OLLI facilitator Archana Prakash.

When Wichian Rojanawon launched what is now the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, the only space available at the time was a closet in Wheatley Hall that had been used to store broken chairs. Undaunted, Rojanawon, who has a doctorate in gerontology, pushed ahead with his dream of creating the Boston area’s first-ever community for lifelong learners at a public university.

Next month, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute will celebrate its 10th anniversary at UMass Boston, having expanded into a year-round program with hundreds of members aged 50 and up, taking over 90 different courses. That refurbished closet is long gone, with the institute boasting its own office and classroom space in McCormack Hall where the old third floor cafeteria used to be.

With the help of a dedicated volunteer board and an array of instructors, including several members of the UMass Boston faculty, Rojanawon is now looking ahead to further expansion of the popular program.

“Our program is different,’’ Rojanawon notes with obvious pride. “We are the only (OLLI) program in the city of Boston sponsored by a public university.’’

UMass Boston’s Osher institute is one of the more successful of 119 such programs supported nationwide by the San Francisco-based Bernard Osher Foundation. But getting there has been a challenge at times, especially the first crucial step of winning the support of the Foundation, Rojanawon recalls.

While the university helped get his program off the ground with a $3,000 grant, Rojanawon realized an affiliation with Osher could provide the financial boost his budding institute needed to get its own classroom and office space. But there was one big problem: The Osher Foundation awarded grants on an invitation-only basis, and there were already three Boston-area chapters, all at private colleges.

So Rojanawon did some detective work and tracked down the niece of a board member who lived in San Francisco, where Osher is based. As luck would have it, she had worked at the foundation and was able to provide a name and address to contact. After an initial rejection, Rojanawon persisted, arguing while there were Osher affiliates at Brandeis, Harvard and Tufts, there was no Osher program in Boston itself and none in the metro area sponsored by a public university.

After a mysterious phone call asking him how many members he had, Rojanawon received an email a few weeks later informing him the Osher Foundation had awarded his institute a $100,000 grant.

That was back in 2005. It was followed by another $100,000 grant the next year and an even bigger series of grants in 2008 after the now-renamed Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston crossed the 500 member mark. University matching funds have since boosted the overall total to $3 million, the largest non-research endowment in the history of UMass Boston.

“Wichian has done a remarkable job in growing and building the Osher institute at UMass Boston,’’ said David Blazevich, senior program officer at the Osher Foundation. “It is among the larger ones we have around the country.’’

UMass Boston’s Osher Institute, in turn, fills a vital niche in the Greater Boston area as the only such program at a public university, Rojanawon contends. The cost of the UMass Boston program is much more affordable than other Osher programs at private colleges, with an annual individual membership fee of just $175, compared to several hundred dollars per semester at other programs.

The UMass Boston’s institute also prides itself on a broader array of courses than its private university counterparts, mixing classes like “The Gathering Storm,’’ which looks at the decade before the Civil War, with how-to classes on the Internet and digital photography. Other offerings range from “China’s Response to the United States’’ and “America’s Financial Crisis’’ to a course on the films of Clint Eastwood.

Current and retired UMass Boston faculty teach classes, as well as students who have developed a particular expertise, such as the retired dentist who teaches a class on Mark Twain and a psychiatrist turned history buff.

There are also several “brown bag’’ lectures by faculty members and experts offered throughout the year to Osher members, as well as an extensive travel program. Typically led by an Osher instructor, members have ranged wide overseas on educational trips to countries including China, Thailand and Vietnam.

“Our courses are different from Harvard or Brandeis. Their courses are more academic and formal. They tend to do full semesters. They don’t do how-to courses,’’ Rajanawon said.

The university’s Osher program has also become a magnet of distinguished guest speakers as well, including William Bulger, former president of the UMass system, Kitty Dukakis, and Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz.

The institute wins rave reviews from students, many of whom did not previously have any connections to UMass Boston.

Barry Hass, a retired Raytheon executive from the South Shore and a graduate of the City College of New York, decided he wanted to get involved auditing courses at a local college and began exploring options.

He quickly found that sitting in on classes could be prohibitively expensive at many schools. After doing research on the Osher institute’s offerings at UMass Boston, he invited Rojanawon to speak to a men’s breakfast club he was attending. The talk was a hit, leading Hass and three other club members to sign up for Osher courses at the university. Drawing inspiration from his Osher courses at UMass Boston, Hass has developed an interest in web design and launched a blog as well.

“It grew out of some of the things I was doing at UMass,’’ Hass said. “I thought about teaching a course on blogging.’’

Diane McCormack, a retired bilingual psychologist who lives in Dorchester, found out about UMass Boston’s Osher institute through word of mouth. A graduate of the UMass Amherst, she now chairs the institute’s board of directors and has gone on a number of trips, including a memorable visit to Thailand, where the group visited a senior center and a home for children who had been rescued from brothels.

There is also a steady stream of short outings, from excursions to theatrical productions in Boston to day trips to Nantucket.

“It is really a great help for aging people who want to travel but don’t want to do it by themselves,’’ McCormack said.

Phyllis Jennings, a retired Brockton fifth-grade teacher, now teaches a course on “Historic Boston’’ at the Osher institute after taking classes on everything from computers to movies and food.

“I think it is just a fabulous program,’’ said Jennings, who first began attending classes back in 2003 and has gone on a number of trips through the institute as well, from Tanglewood to Thailand.

Along with intellectual stimulation, the Osher courses provide a venue to meet other like lifelong learners and to feel part of the larger university community, Jennings said.

“It is lifelong learning,’’ Jennings said. “It is just joyful. It is a wonderful group of people with the wonderful experiences and lives they have lived.’’

Meanwhile, Rojanawon is now focusing on his next big goal, boosting Osher’s membership at UMass Boston to over a thousand members, from 700 now. His latest outreach initiative includes offering classes, via videoconferencing, at local libraries in Hingham and Plymouth and a partnership with a local retirement community in Canton.

“Our goal is to expand what we call the community of learners,’’ Rojanawon said. “We not only want to have programs on campus, we want to reach out to other locations as well.’’

To learn more about OLLI, click here.

Tags: community , olli , the point

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