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For the Pure Joy of Learning

OLLI Commemorates 25 Years at Northwestern

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Northwestern University (OLLI) celebrates 25 years of providing a dynamic learning community for adults over 50 on Northwestern’s Chicago and Evanston campuses. Inspired by Northwestern trustee, Newton Minow, OLLI began as the Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR), a part of Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies. It was thought a peer-led program — not designed around academic credit, but for the pure joy of learning, would be a good fit for Northwestern and that certainly proved to be true.

Unique among other continuing education programs, the program was — and still is — organized by its students. Members are coordinators, rather than teachers; they conceive and implement study groups featuring highly participatory, engaged discussion instead of lectures. The program is so successful due to the dynamic community of members who give generously of their time and talent. Closet academics are proving that enthusiasm for learning knows no boundaries of age or circumstance. “We sometimes say, ‘people come here not to be taught, but to learn,’” says director Judy Mann.

In 2005, the institute was recognized in a very important way: ILR was invited to participate in the nationwide network of university-based Lifelong Learning Institutes endowed by the Bernard Osher Foundation. The Northwestern program was renamed the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

At the program’s inception 25 years ago there were 68 members and ten study groups offered. Word spread and the number of members tripled. Hundreds of senior students have returned to education — and they continue to brush up their Shakespeare, learn about Mao’s China, delve into U.S. foreign policy and study modern art. Stuart Applebaum, retired furniture company president, said “When you are working and raising a family, you don’t have the time to do the things that interest you academically.”

Depth of mental stimulation, creativity and camaraderie are essential ingredients of OLLI’s offerings. Applebaum says the study groups remind him of his undergrad days when he and his friends “would debate the role of the peasant in the Russian Revolution until 2 a.m.” Today OLLI at NU offers nearly 155 study groups to 800 members — and has offered an impressive 3,800 study groups over a 25-year span.

To celebrate, a 25th anniversary dinner was held on June 6, 2012 at the University Club in Chicago. Thomas Gibbons, dean of Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies, spoke before dinner, affirming OLLI’s place as a nationally recognized program “for seasoned learners who have a true love for learning.” He said OLLI at Northwestern “offers to its members what Northwestern offers to any student who comes through our doors — robust intellectual engagement.”

Honored guest at the 25-year anniversary dinner, Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro, mentioned that OLLI at Northwestern epitomizes lifelong learning; he considers the institute a good example to cite at the many graduation events he attends in the spring.

In a letter read at the event, Osher Foundation President, Mary G.F. Bitterman, acknowledged the 25th anniversary and shared her congratulations: “We salute the leadership of Northwestern University for its support of the program and for embracing the notion that — at its best — education is a lifelong pursuit that has the power to elevate us, delight us, and keep us connected to each other and to a larger world.” Bitterman concluded with, “We are inspired by your many accomplishments and proud to be associated with your good work.” At the Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies, it’s a sentiment definitely worth celebrating.

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