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Oklahoma State University

Learning Never Gets Old

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The first day of a class for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at OSU mirrors any first day of school. It is a time to reunite with friends, meet new people and satisfy a natural curiosity about a particular subject.

OLLI at OSU provides continuing education for seasoned adults through classes, travel and social activities with

the goal of contributing to quality of life through enriching experiences.The program is thriving.

“OLLI at OSU is such a life force,” says director RuthAnn Sirbaugh, “even for folks who are well-connected. It’s an instant community.”

The program launched in 2007 in Stillwater with roughly 35 members. Today, the program counts more than 1,000 members and has expanded to five sites across the state. It has become a staple in Stillwater, Tulsa and Oklahoma City. A fledgling site has begun in Bartlesville and the newest site, in Yukon, was added in 2013.

Sirbaugh has been with the program since its inception. In 2007, a group from the OSU Emeriti Association approached then-College of Education Dean Pamela Fry with the idea of establishing a lifelong learning program. Sirbaugh, serving as the College of Education’s outreach manager, wrote the first grant proposal to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She admits being skeptical, but when the grant was funded, she took on the role of director.

Seven years later, Sirbaugh has countless stories of new friendships formed, high school friends reuniting and alumni and former faculty reconnecting to the university.

“Watching the program grow has been incredibly challenging and rewarding,” Sirbaugh says. “I have met so many people who embrace the program wholeheartedly. As an educator, it is very liberating to choose curriculum and course subjects that fulfill our motto, ‘learning for the joy of learning.’ “

Advisory boards make recommendations about topics that interest them, and classes cover a broad spectrum. “Charcoal Drawing,” “Chef School and Wine Tasting,” “How Food Affects Our Health” and “Telling Your Personal and Family Stories” represent a sample from the summer session. Classes are considered college-level and though they are geared toward adults who are 50 and older, there are no age limits.

“Our average age is 73, yet we have had middle school kids and working adults attend classes. There is demand. We turn people away each semester,” Sirbaugh notes.

Classes generally meet for two or three hours once a week for three weeks. Instructors volunteer to share their expertise, and they teach because they are passionate about their subjects and enjoy teaching students who are genuinely interested in learning.

Martin Banschbach, a professor at the OSU Center for Health Sciences, says teaching OLLI classes is a wonderful experience.

He has taught “How Food Affects Our Health” and “Fatal Attraction,” courses related to health and nutrition

“Medical students never interact with the instructor,” he says. “I’m lucky to get one or two questions per class of medical students. OLLI is a dream come true if you like answering questions and trying to help people understand something that can change their life.”

Each year, OLLI at OSU has met or exceeded grant expectations. Reaching the 1,000-member mark is a major milestone and sets up the program to apply for a second endowment from the Osher Foundation (after an initial $1 million in 2010).

“Although my job is very hectic and time-consuming, I love it,” Sirbaugh says. “I love the people I work with, and I consider myself very lucky to have the opportunity to nurture a program I care so deeply about.”

As the fall semester of OLLI at OSU begins, Sirbaugh will pack her Honda Fit full of supplies and travel to set up mobile classrooms at 43 sites. She would not have it any other way.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Are you interested in taking classes with OLLI or do you know someone who would enjoy it? Membership options include $150 for a year with unlimited classes or a $50 annual fee and $25 per class. Visit education.okstate.edu/olli or call 405-744-5868.