The student body at Emory University is made up primarily of college-age students. But take a stroll Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday morning and you’re likely to see a few bright-eye, gray haired students toting backpacks on their way to classes.
They are part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Emory (OLLIE), an all-volunteer program where very seasoned professors and professionals teach a variety of intellectual courses to those 50-plus.
Although it is highly structured and very academic, the program is actually a community outreach effort to offer continued education for seniors.
“We keep things pretty academic. We tap Emory emeritus professors who are long time teachers in their field, and they cover anything from Quantum Physics to Dante’s Inferno,” says King Mengert, Program Director for OLLIE under the umbrella of Emory Continuing Education.
Mengert has been in his position for four years, so he’s seen the program evolve and grow into a roughly 720-member organization. In any given quarter of classes, there are an average of 350 students enrolled and active. Although he admits his students and professors alike have much more life experience and impressive credentials, he collaborates with a small base of them who make up a Curriculum Committee. These volunteers are members and instructors who help him develop schedules, topics, courses and every aspect of the program.
“Almost all classes are fueled by volunteer energy. Most are gung ho to keep engaging. Everyone is there because they want to learn. It’s the closest you can get to pure form of learning,” Mengert says.
He explains what’s most interesting is that the professors are dealing with peers in their classrooms instead of traditional students. That transforms a classroom to a forum of people who all have a long history of life experiences, so it’s more of a sharing atmosphere than the usual of imparting knowledge to a more naïve audience.
Asked what he has learned being surrounded by all that knowledge, Mengert says, “I can be as ironic and cynical as the next guy, but find I rarely am with this program. I’ve never had a job where I can totally believe in what I’m doing. It’s a pretty good feeling to be a part of it and it is a privilege since I’m not 50 yet.”
Jack Carew, an instructor who labels himself a “Discussion Leader,” was touched by this energy when he engaged as a senior student 11 years ago. After the class, he was so inspired that he introduced himself to the program director at the time and offered to lecture in political science. He started the next quarter and has been part of the program ever since. “I want to continue to be challenged and challenge others who want to keep learning,” Carew said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
The program is funded by the Osher Foundation, which supports 117 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes on university and college campuses across the country, with at least one program in each of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. Bernard Osher set up the foundation because he believed intellectual and social engagement has a tremendously positive affect people’s quality of life as they age.
This comes through crystal clear as Carew ponders his experience. “Our parents never had this kind of life opportunity. Most grew up in ‘30s during the war when this kind of activity wasn’t available. One of the great things is that we now all live longer and healthier lives, and those lives can be enriched. That’s why I always tell my students no matter where you are in life, don’t ever quit.”
For more, visit ece.emory.edu.