Celebrating 25 Years of Lifelong Learning

Now in its silver anniversary year, OLLI has yet to run out of ideas.

by Janet Lange, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Bradley University
OLLI members cruised the Volga River, canals and waterways between Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2013. Since then, OLLI has traveled to France, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

It’s a funny name… It rhymes with holly. There is no intuitive meaning, unless you are a member of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Bradley University, affectionately known as OLLI. The 1,200 Peoria-area members know OLLI as the premier organization for people 50 and up, who want to stay vital and active as they reach and enjoy retirement. Members can participate in a diverse collection of year-round programs, including non-credit classes, educational travel, study groups and special events. 

A Learning Community
People are what make OLLI special. In 1994, volunteer community members and alumni formed a steering committee that designed the institute on a foundation of peer learning. They organized 10 courses that fall (modeled after a typical high school day), which were held on campus in the Michel Student Center, which is still the home of OLLI classes. Eighty-four participants took two morning and two afternoon classes of their choice, with coffee and lunch breaks in between, a format that continues today. They even ride a bus to travel from nearby parking lots to campus, but there are no tests and no stress—just the fun of learning with friends. 

OLLI soon discovered the power of “six degrees of separation,” finding there is always someone who can connect the group with the perfect instructor, study group facilitator or trip site. Its members develop all of OLLI’s programming, and in 25 years, they have yet to run out of ideas.

In addition to its member-driven focus on peer learning, OLLI instills a sense of belonging and always includes opportunities for socialization. Meals and snacks are a vital part of the learning community, allowing time for friends old and new to discuss what they learned or experienced. After retirement, it is easy to become isolated, but OLLI has become an important part of many members’ lives. 

“My husband died in 2016. That fall I signed up for a trip by myself and was so impressed that I attended winter 2017 classes and found a number of people that I knew,” says one member. “Grieving the loss of my husband had made me depressed and always tired. By the evening of the third day of classes, I had lots of energy and accomplished things that had been set aside for weeks. OLLI has been a life-saver for me.”

OLLI Travel
OLLI offers educational travel, classes, study groups and co-sponsored events.

People, Places and Scones
Another member reflects on how the OLLI experience allowed the group to grow from 84 to 1,200 members: “from the ever-present welcoming greetings of OLLI staff and hosts… to coming to understand that the laughter-inducing comments about eating scones were not just about a delectable OLLI snack, but also about the ‘we’re glad you’re here’ approach to gathering with others to learn… to the freedom to engage as much (or not) in any OLLI program or to volunteer as much (or not) as one desires, and to easily align it all with the busy—surprisingly, but happily so—life of a retiree. It’s been, as they say, all good. (Keep those scones coming!)” 

OLLI is funded through registration and membership fees, interest on two $1 million endowment gifts from the Bernard Osher Foundation, private donations, and support from Bradley University. Membership is open to anyone 50 or older, with $5 dues paid for each of the four OLLI seasons. OLLI will kick off its silver anniversary year with a gala, “People, Places, and Scones: Celebrating 25 Years of Lifelong Learning,” for members and the public, on October 30, 2019, at the Holiday Inn & Suites – Grand Prairie. PM

To register for the gala or OLLI programs, visit bradley.edu/olli or call (309) 677-3900.