For students of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, there’s neither homework nor grades. But there is love of learning—and a special connection to SCU.
It’s a Tuesday morning in January and more than 50 students have come to a classroom in Loyola Hall for the first session of Robert Senkewicz's course on the American Revolution and its aftermath. There’s an easy rapport with the professor; more than one of the students have a few years’ seniority on him. Some have taken classes with him before, and they’re eager to dive into the narrative of how the rule of monarch yields to the rise of the common man.
Not one student is here to fill a prerequisite or a required course for his or her major. Some are alumni, some parents of students and alumni, some former faculty and staff. And every one of them is age 50 “or better,” as the literature says.
Welcome to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI)—a program in its ninth year at Santa Clara that currently enrolls more than 600 students. Part of a national network, OLLI at SCU draws students from throughout the Bay Area for a variety of courses in history, music, religious studies, archaeology, the news media, economics, film, and psychology.
John Daly B.S. ’67, M.S. ’71 is taking the course on the American Revolution this winter. He’s been a member in OLLI since 2005, and he sums up the thoughts of virtually everyone who participates in the program’s classes and events each quarter: “You should never stop learning,” he says. “You know, the old ‘use it or lose it’ thing.” OLLI, he says, “is certainly an interesting and a sociable way to continue.”
Frank Barone couldn’t agree more. A former Silicon Valley executive, he and wife Barbara are parents of two Santa Clara grads: Michael ’88 and David ’90. “Each fall I would bring them back to campus, and I would think of how wonderful it would be to sit in on some of the courses they were taking,” Frank Barone says. Then, a few years later, while he was corporate vice president at Lattice Semiconductor and on his way through yet another airport, he read in BusinessWeek about the Bernard Osher Foundation’s efforts to launch the network of institutes. When he found out Santa Clara would be home to an OLLI program, “I signed up right away.”
Now Barone heads the OLLI advisory board. He’s also taken on roles teaching at Santa Clara—currently as dean’s executive professor of engineering management and leadership.
Through OLLI, he’s studied “American and world history, the Middle East, art history, economics, science, and religion.” He likes that there are no tests and no grades. “But for some reason, I seem to take as many notes as I did back in engineering school.”
Along with the intellectual stimulation that comes with the courses, OLLI students value the network of friends that participation in the program brings. Plus, Barone says, “the Institute keeps us all connected to the University.”
A healthy mind
OLLI at SCU is directed by Senkewicz, a professor of history at SCU who has also taught generations of undergrads on the Mission Campus. He took the helm from Patti Simone, an associate professor of psychology, who helped launch OLLI at SCU. Her scholarship seemed a perfect fit: She’s an expert in healthy aging and directs Santa Clara’s gerontology program.
Heading up the Bernard Osher Foundation overall and instrumental in the national network of OLLI programs is Mary Bitterman ’66. With a strong start and growing enrollment, OLLI at Santa Clara proved successful enough to earn a $1 million endowment from the foundation; that ensures class costs stay low—$35 per academic year for membership, plus course and event fees that range from $15 to $75.
The institute’s long courses meet for two hours on five consecutive daytime slots, while short courses meet once for five hours, including a one-hour lunch break. In addition, the Osher Distinguished Speaker Series presents one-time, two-hour events on a variety of topics; and OLLI members have access to a wealth of other on-campus programs and opportunities, including the President’s Speaker Series, the de Saisset Museum, and behind-the-scenes with SCU Presents.
Dorothea French taught history at Santa Clara for 20 years before she retired. She now participates in OLLI as both student and professor: teaching a Western Civilization series beginning with the Greeks and Romans, as well as a historical and geographical exploration of France. When French doffs her professor’s hat and dons her student cap, however, her vision broadens to include art history, plus literature and political science.
French loved teaching undergraduates, but she says that there are advantages to working with older learners. “Every single instructor in our program says, ‘I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven,’ because you never hear, ‘Is this going to be on the test?’ and you never have people texting, sleeping, or holding up a newspaper trying to hide behind it. They have a thirst for knowledge.”
Phyllis Lazzarini of San Jose has been an OLLI student since 2005. She started in the program while her sons Nicholas ’06 and Benjamin ’07 were earning their undergraduate degrees at SCU. And she notes that, just as the beauty of the Mission Campus charms many a visiting prospective student, it draws OLLI students as well.
She also points out that many people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s—particularly women—never had the chance to get a college education. So they may be a little hesitant in their first OLLI class, she says, “because they hear the word ‘professor,’ and they’ve never met a professor before. But once you get them into [OLLI], and they see how relaxed and informal it is, they’re hooked.” As for herself, “I’d rather be sitting in an OLLI class than going to see some movie.”
Find out more and register for classes on the OSHER website or by calling 408-554-2382.
The enthusiasm of the students catches some of the teachers by surprise the first time they experience it. As John Daly puts it, the students “are right on the edge of their seats.” And at the end of the lecture: applause.
Justine Macauley ’10 conducted interviews, and Liz Wassmann ’13 and Danae Stahlnecker ’15 contributed reporting for this article.