You might be aware of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Illinois. You might have heard that it offers classes for older adults, which is true. You might have heard that it’s only for former U of I students, staff or faculty, which is not true.
But it’s a good guess that you haven’t heard this: OLLI is truly a community, filled with supportive members who gain much more than simply the knowledge gleaned inside its walls.
“They find a sense of community,” said OLLI director Christine Catanzarite. “Many of our activities put people together so that they have the opportunity to share, the study groups especially, because they’re so interactive. It encourages people to hang out, and some of them have plans on going out to lunch afterward, and (there’s often a discussion about) who gets to pick the restaurant. Usually if you get to pick the story that’s under discussion that day you also get to pick the restaurant.
“But you’re also going to meet people in a way that you probably can’t find outside of a workforce.”
Added OLLI’s outreach specialist Janet Summers: “I’ve had many people say that. When you think about your friends during your lifetime, many of them come from work. But when you stop working you don’t see those people on a daily basis. So people here have a whole new layer of that. And there are some people that come and don’t talk, and that’s fine, too.”
Here’s what OLLI is: A member-centered community of adult learners. Members – there are more than 1,200 now – can choose from approximately 35 courses per semester, taking as many as they’d like. OLLI also offers a schedule of programs and activities that includes lectures, study groups, travel opportunities and collaborations with the U of I and surrounding communities in Central Illinois.
A full-year membership is $195; half-year memberships are offered each November. (Scholarships are available for those who need assistance.) No grades are registered and no credit is earned. Most classes and activities are at the OLLI center, located in the second floor at 301 N. Neil St. in downtown Champaign, just above Destihl. (There is connected parking deck, and OLLI’s facility is full accessible.)
The only stipulation is that a member must be at least age 50. That’s it. There are no previous educational requirements.
“Members also participate as volunteers and help shape the policies and programs,” Catanzarite said, “and serve on a volunteer board, and provide support in all sorts of ways. People can get involved in actually crafting the program.”
Each OLLI – there are 123 programs nationwide – is affiliated with a university. The OLLI here began in 2007 with 11 classes and 297 members. The program has grown so effectively that it moved into the new facility which serves as its current location in 2015.
“It’s kind of like a choose-your-own-adverture,” Summers said. “Some people take a couple classes per semester and come in just for that, and come for a lecture occasionally. Some people are here all day. The record is 17 courses in one semester. It is not uncommon for people to take six or seven courses per semester.
“When we started, I did not realize how important this would be to people. And we’ve had many people say, ‘OLLI saved my life.’ It’s amazing. They want to stay intellectually and socially involved but if you’re not going to church, if you’re not involved in a volunteer activity, it’s hard to have like-minded people (in your circle). When I say like-minded I mean people who are interested in growing, learning and staying healthy. Sometimes people will lose their spouse or their parents, it’s just a place where people feel safe. People understand what they’re going through.”
Important facts: OLLI’s facility is equipped with assisted listening systems and have automatic doors. Seats can be reserved for those in wheelchairs. Half-year memberships are available for the period that runs Dec. 1-June 30. Membership includes one free eight-week course (or two four-week courses). Each additional eight-week course is $40 (as of October 2019). Spring courses are typically announced in early December. Orientation sessions are offered for new members.
“We want people to feel welcomed and included,” Catanzarite said.
OLLI is supported by the Bernard Osher Foundation, the Illinois Office of the Provost and donations of OLLI members and community partners.
For more information visit OLLI’s website.
Learn more about lifelong learning opportunities in Champaign-Urbana.