NEVER STOP LEARNING

Last Thursday, Martin and I attended the Spring Term Back to OLLI Reception along with two of our neighbors who decided to become members as well. We sipped tea and nibbled on cookies and talked with many people we didn’t know before the reception and anticipated the start of classes this week. Now, the week is here where I start a writing class and Martin begins Carving 201. What is OLLI? Well, last May as I looked for new and exciting ways to spend my time, I searched the web for things to do in Greenville, SC for people 50 and older. Expectations were not high for anything out of the ordinary. But, I was in for a real surprise. In a short time online, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Furman University (http://www.furman.edu/SITES/OLLI/NEWSFROMOLLI/Pages/default.aspx) popped up among the usual senior living choices. As I visited the site and read further, I could feel my excitement and anticipation mounting. The discovery of a lifelong learning center dedicated to people 50 and over right in my backyard was more than I could have hoped for when I started trawling the web that morning. By the time I finished reading the OLLI pages, Martin and I were headed to the car and the Furman campus. Although it was the end of the 2014 school year, our visit to the Herring Center convinced us to join OLLI in the fall. As we enter our third term no less enthused than we were last May, never stop learning has never held more meaning for us. The good news is this. There are 119 OLLI campuses throughout the U.S. and there are colleges and universities throughout the world with adult learning opportunities.

In 2000 The Bernard Osher Foundation (http://www.osherfoundation.org/index.php?olli) made a decision to start doling out multi-millions to support lifelong education centers on campuses across the U.S. so mature adults (that’s us) would have access to continuing education classes, which met their needs. In other words, fun classes in photography, art, history, literature, technology and exercise that were non-accredited but just for, well, fun. With million dollar endowments now handed out to 119 campuses throughout the country and at least one OLLI established in all 50 states, the Foundation is not currently giving further endowments. However, the impact of what has been accomplished by this generous gifting cannot be underestimated. For a generation looking to reinvent itself after leaving the workforce, OLLI offers the opportunity to continue learning new skills, take up new hobbies, soak up new ideas and make new friends. For those with skills to share, there are teaching and volunteer opportunities. If you are looking for renewed purpose and meaning in your post-retirement life, continuing to learn new things is the place to start exploring your next move.

But, what if you don’t have an OLLI in your backyard or even in your part of the world? Every developed country has colleges and universities. In Europe and Great Britain programs similar to OLLI are called University of the Third Age or U3A. Other colleges offer adult learning in the form of accredited courses only but you may enjoy applying yourself toward receiving a certificate or grade. My alma mater, Michigan State University (Go Spartans!) offers a Lifelong Education Program, in which students take the University’s courses on a non-accredited but graded basis at a reduced tuition cost. In the State of South Carolina, residents 60 and older can take courses at state supported colleges tuition free, although, they have to pay an application fee and pay for any materials required for the course. Look for similar options in your part of the world. Most institutions of higher learning also offer lecture series, plays, concerts and sporting events. Affiliating yourself with a local college, with or without continuing education or adult learning courses, may open new doors in other ways.

Don’t assume it’s out of your financial reach, but costs do vary widely, so do your homework up front on the financial requirements. I pay a $50 per year membership fee at OLLI Furman. Paying for classes individually runs $50 per course but, I bought a one year course package at $210 for 6 classes. That’s $35 for an eight week course, a bargain. The University also offers Friday Bonus Events, which are tuition free with students covering the cost of any materials. Then, there’s also Lunch and Learn Tuesdays, where students bring a lunch and listen to area speakers talk about various subjects. This Friday I’ll be hiking the Jocassee Gorge, one of the most wildflower rich areas of the world, in search of spring ephemerals. My cost? Chipping in for gas as we’re carpooling from the University. The cost of membership includes access to the University library, a boon for readers. And, tickets for many cultural events are as little as $10. Additionally, we are in a technological age where many colleges offer courses online and free. You’re not likely to meet people in that forum, but you can learn new skills.

Then, there are the things you gain, by entering college life, which really can’t be quantified. First of all, you have a chance to get outside that comfort zone I keep harping about. You know, the zone that keeps you in a rut with little or no excitement in your life. Remember, all the things you are comfortable doing today were probably outside your comfort zone when you started doing them. Try taking something at a college or university, which you, never in a million years, would dare to try. Here’s your chance to open new neural pathways and exercise your brain. Go ahead. Do it! Secondly, you will meet other people and you may even strike up new friendships. While you may not normally walk up to a stranger and introduce yourself, the classroom environment is conducive to doing just that. There are people with all kinds of interesting backgrounds and lifestyles attending classes. And, they are there looking for the same thing you are, a connection with people and learning.

Just as the concept of working for the same employer for forty years has become outmoded, so is the idea that we stop learning after we retire. Continuing to learn new things, meet new people and engage in the world around us will keep us active and sharp-minded as we age. And, there is no better place to begin than at a local college or university. Now is the time when you have the hours to put into learning a new skill or taking up a new hobby or filling your mind with new ideas. Can you imagine your grandparents seeing how the world has changed and what has been offered up to us and not wanting to take advantage of it? They would think we were crazy fools not to engage with these learning activities. Our generation is at the leading edge of a huge cultural shift in the concept of aging. Become an active part of this cultural shift and never stop learning!

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