Adults continue lifelong learning in OLLI

There is a program at Sonoma State University that offers no tests and no quizzes, and is just six weeks long. And in about 30 years, current Sonoma State students can participate. 

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, or OLLI, is offered at Sonoma State to students age 50 and older. Currently in it’s 15th year, the program serves 1,500 students.

OLLI at Sonoma State is one of 119 other Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes based on college campuses all over the country. 

Fundingfor the program comes partially from the Bernard Osher Foundation in San Francisco. 

Students come from all over Sonoma County to learn just for the sake of learning. The classes are non-credit, and offer no tests, homework or quizzes. 

Philip Harriman, a former assistant professor at the University of Missouri and Duke Medical School, has been an OLLI student since 2002. For him, it’s a great way to get back on a college campus.

“I’d been away from a university for the 24 years that I was working for the Federal Government, and I wanted to be able to spend time on a campus again. In addition to the OLLI courses, I use Schultz Library a lot and attend open lectures in the different science departments here, mostly astronomy/physics and biology,” Harriman said. “OLLI is chance to keep growing and interacting with a great group of students.  A chance to take part in campus activities. I’m on the campus so much that I buy semester parking passes instead of daily permits.”

Harriman graduated from Caltech with a B.S. in physics and received a PhD from Berkeley in biophysics. Not only is he an OLLI student, but he has also taught OLLI classes at Sonoma State. 

“After a few years of taking courses I proposed teaching a class on genetics and it was accepted.  I’ve taught a total of six classes for OLLI at Sonoma State and a few others in the OLLI program at Dominican University in San Rafael,” Harriman said. 

Some students take just one class, while others take up to eight. 

“While more than half of our students take one class per term, many others take two, three or even up to eight classes each term, some coming to campus four days a week,” Carin Jacobs director of Sonoma State’s OLLI said. 

Classes are held in two locations, Sonoma State’s main campus and also in Oakmont, a large senior-living community in Sonoma County. 

An average day for an OLLI starts with a 9:30 a.m. class. Students who stay for the 1:30 p.m. class can often be found having lunch in large groups in the Student Center or Charlie Brown’s Cafe. 

Joanne Lapinski has been an OLLI student for nine years, having previously graduated from Sonoma State in 2007 with a B.A. in liberal studies from the Hutchins School.

“I enjoyed my academic experience at Sonoma State, and wanted to continue the learning journey through OLLI classes and being a part of Sonoma State,” Lapinski said. 

When Lapinski’s three children started college, she found herself wanting to finish her ambition of being a teacher and getting a four year degree. 

When she realized she would be 60 by the time she finished her credential, she decided to become a student forever. 

“I love Sonoma State. I usually walk the entire campus in the morning before classes. It makes me feel alive and gets me ready for the classes.”

Harriman and Lapinski, however, is not the only OLLI student with previous college experience. 

“Roughly 95 percent of our students have a college degree, and at least 50 percent have advanced degrees. They are well travelled, well educated and extremely curious,” Jacobs said. 

Jacobs is one of just two full-time employees for OLLI. For her, seeing the students interact with each other is great. 

“I am also moved by the way many of our students have created extended families and strong friendships, looking out for each other in times of crisis, and traveling the world together in times of good health,” Jacobs said. 

Ruth Timbercrest, who has taken OLLI classes since 2004, echoed that statement.

“I do not want to sound sappy but I have made friends, traveled the world and taken classes on every subject imaginable,” said Timbercrest.

Areas of study for OLLI include arts, contemporary issues, food and wine, natural sciences, social and political history, and world cultures. There is also a science club and an art club, which features lectures during the lunch hour and some off-campus meetups. 

Timbercrest is particularly fond of the history classes because of the travel opportunities the subject provides.

“Sometimes the professors will take us on a tour of the country we have been studying. Thus far I have been to Egypt, Cuba, Israel, Romania and so many more.  Next spring I have signed up for a tour of the Rhine and Mosel Rivers.” Timbercrest said.

Not only does Harriman love Sonoma State, but he also loves OLLI, and is quite proud of it. 

“I’m proud of the fact that the Sonoma State OLLI program is the second in the lifelong learning programs that Bernard Osher has funded,” Harriman said.