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Osher Lifelong Learning Institute celebrates 20 years of continuing education in Charlottesville

The organization will host a private event to celebrate the community and the tireless work of volunteers

<p>OLLI holds courses at accessible locations and times to fit the typical senior’s schedule.</p>

OLLI holds courses at accessible locations and times to fit the typical senior’s schedule.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University celebrated its 20th anniversary Sunday. By hosting a private event to honor the members and volunteers who have worked tirelessly within the nonprofit. The institute provides older individuals in the Charlottesville area with access to continuing education.

OLLI at U.Va. is part of a broad network of OLLIs around the nation. The University’s OLLI program began in 2001 and was originally called the Jefferson Institute for Lifelong Learning. After receiving a grant from the Bernard Osher Foundation in 2007, the name was changed to its current form.

OLLI holds courses at accessible locations and times to fit the typical schedule of adults over 50 years old. These courses span a number of topics and include An Introduction to Buddhism, Creative Writing for Dabblers and What You Need to Know about CryptoCurrency Investing. According to OLLI’s mission statement, the goal of these courses is to provide “educational opportunities and intellectual enrichment to active adults in the community.”

Along with classes, OLLI hosts social outings for members and public guest presentations. Members can also form member-managed Shared Interest Groups that organize members around a particular interest. 

Genevieve Baer, director of operations and member engagement at OLLI, said the 20th anniversary event included a private gathering at the Boar’s Head Resort with member speakers to celebrate the hard work of volunteers. In addition to the small staff of five people, the organization is primarily made up of volunteer workers — including instructors, office assistants, board members and class moderators. 

For Baer, the work of volunteers is the cornerstone of OLLI’s work in the community. 

“We are just so grateful to our volunteers and members, and would not have survived 20 years without them,” Baer said. 

OLLI and the University enjoy a strong collaborative relationship. The University appoints two representatives to the board of each UAO — a representative of the Board of Visitors and a representative of President Ryan. Current OLLI board president Gary Nimax concurrently serves as President Ryan’s representative on the board.

According to Nimax, who began serving on the board in 2009 and has served as board president since 2020, OLLI further connects to the University by providing current and retired professors with the opportunity to teach older students in the community.

“Without our instructors, we wouldn't be able to do anything,” Nimax said. “Many of our instructors are retired University professors, some are current professors and others are just individuals who moved to the area but came from careers where they were teaching college courses — [they are] really experts in their fields, and they enjoy the opportunity to continue talking about their interests.”

OLLI instructor and 1979 College alum Brian Pollok, doctor of cellular and molecular biology who previously taught graduate and medical students at Wake Forest University, is preparing to teach his second OLLI course in the fall semester. 

For Pollok, who noted that he enjoys teaching both traditional students and the older OLLI audience, there are some distinct differences between the two groups. 

“[Older students are] frequently retired, and they just have the wherewithal to explore and to be patient and to listen and just ask questions, do reading, that extra curricular thing, and older students bring their own career and life experiences to a course,” Pollok said.

After a decrease in membership during the COVID-19 pandemic, Baer noted that OLLI membership has begun to increase once again thanks to the addition of virtual classes — which make the program even more accessible than before.

“A handful, maybe 10 or 12, of our courses or programs are online and this is an avenue that we — like all of us — had to learn how to do during COVID, and we found that it was really a wonderful way to reach some of our wonderful members that either are more comfortable online or aren't driving right now so they can still attend courses,” Baer said.

Staff and members are looking toward the future as well, especially after the pandemic’s impact on operations. Baer said she hopes to increase engagement with new and returning members.  

“We're really hoping that when people think of nonprofits, they think of OLLI [as] being a partner,” Baer said. “We want to work with different nonprofits and organizations in the community together to serve our wonderful community of aging adults.”

The 20th anniversary celebration coincided with another milestone for OLLI — the proclamation of July as OLLI at U.Va. month to recognize the organization as a valuable community resource. As OLLI celebrated its 20th anniversary, Nimax hoped to reinforce the notion that education is a lifelong process.

“I think the most important thing is furthering the idea that we never stop learning and that we never should stop learning,” Nimax said.