Life is full of learning experiences. Humans naturally enjoy learning and diving deeper into their passions. There are few other organizations that understand this better than the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).
Founded in 1977 by Bernard Osher, OLLI aims to provide a continuous learning experience for adults 50 years and older. As of writing, there are only 124 OLLI locations throughout the United States. Two of these locations are in Mississippi, and are exclusively affiliated with The University of Southern Mississippi. OLLI at USM classes are usually held in The Peck House, located on the west edge of the Hattiesburg campus, or in Long Beach classrooms. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, though, classes are currently only being offered virtually.
Many OLLI members have and continue to delve into creative activities they may not have considered before. The classes at OLLI help members explore hobbies they otherwise would have ignored, such as painting or Tai Chi. Members are often surprised at what they are capable of, and love learning how to fill their lives with wisdom, joy and creativity.
After retirement, some older adults can feel that their lives are winding down, and that they have nothing else to learn. OLLI members, who overwhelmingly have curious, spirited natures, debunk that myth.
“If you stop learning, you become old,” Dallas Gorbett, a retired Inventory Specialist, said in a video detailing testimonials for the OLLI at USM program. “This [OLLI] keeps us younger.”
There is a scientific basis for the benefits of learning and keeping the mind busy. Studies have shown that acquiring skills later in life has the potential to decrease or delay cognitive changes that occur with aging. It’s important for people to continuously keep their minds sharp, and OLLI encourages its members to do just that.
In order to provide the best learning experience for its members, OLLI at USM invites faculty from Southern Miss, William Carey and other local community colleges to teach classes based on their own careers and hobbies. Members are also encouraged to teach classes to keep the spirit of learning alive.
Jerry Adams, a longtime OLLI member, started her membership back in 2006 in Galveston, Texas. Shortly after moving to Hattiesburg, she and her husband invested a lot of their time in OLLI at USM. They eventually went on to teach classes, and remain active in OLLI to this day. Adams said she has really enjoyed her time at OLLI both as an instructor and a student, and encourages anyone interested to take some of the bird-watching classes offered. More than that, though, Adams wants anyone interested to join to expand their horizons.
“It’s open to everyone,” said Adams. “Anyone is welcomed and I think they would be very comfortable coming to OLLI.”
That was certainly the experience for Dr. Carol Ann Lewando, a Gulf Park OLLI member. Lewando said that her life would be very different without OLLI.
“It gives me an opportunity to continue learning and growing in an environment suited for others my age. Field trips and travel, prior to the pandemic, with like-minded individuals are experiences I would not have had otherwise,” said Lewando. “OLLI classes are also very affordable[,] which is important for those that are retired with limited income.”
Paula Mathis, the Director of OLLI at Southern Miss, described how pre-pandemic classes used to buzz with excitement. Members thoroughly enjoy being with each other and exchanging ideas, to the point that she occasionally had to remind them that classes were still in session. Yet this was also part of the fun — Mathis said that her favorite part of being OLLI’s director is getting the chance to learn about the members and their life stories.
“The OLLI curriculum also covers wide-ranging topics, and it’s free from the pressures of tests and grades,” said Mathis. “OLLI members learn for the sheer joy of learning.”
Spring term classes started on March 22 and will continue until the end of May. All classes will be on Zoom, and there is a step-by-step instructional video on OLLI’s official webpage to help members navigate online learning. Some of the classes offered this semester are ‘Five Conversations on Women in Art’, ‘Let’s Play the Ukulele!’, ‘Everybody Can Social Dance’, ‘The Power of Plant-Based Nutrition’, ‘Take 5! The Benefits of Stress Reduction on Cognitive Performance’ and ‘Mainframes in the Modern World’.
OLLI membership fees vary based on what location people are interested in. Members pay $50 per year to attend classes at the Hattiesburg location, while Long Beach members pay $40 per year. Because of the exclusivity partnership Southern Miss has with OLLI, Southern Miss faculty and staff members are only charged $30 per year.
Every person interviewed for this piece cannot wait to attend in-person classes again. It is no wonder, too. OLLI’s lively environment and kind faces are bound to intrigue anyone who walks through its doors.
Please visit Southern Miss’s OLLI homepage at https://www.usm.edu/lifelong-learning for more information on registering, available classes and more.