Osher Lifelong Learning Institute has been enriching seniors' lives for 25-plus years

Published January 19, 2022

Carolyn Estrada’s 9-year-old grandson was both amused and curious. How could there be a school where there are not any tests, homework or grading scales? And could he go, too? 

“Don’t teachers need to be older than their students?” he wondered. “So, they must be really old,” he told his grandmother. 

Estrada’s grandson is not old enough to enjoy the rewards of Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and the variety of classes offered at Cal State Long Beach. Yet there have been hundreds of Long Beach seniors, such as Estrada, during OLLI’s 25-plus years at CSULB who have taken advantage of the more than 70 non-credit courses of interest to people 50 years and older who have a desire to learn. 

“OLLI offers retired people a community of like-minded individuals, people who are retired but who are still interested in learning, in growing and being engaged in the world,” said Estrada, who got involved in OLLI in 2009 on the advice of her retired sister. 

Today, Estrada is on the governing board of OLLI and teaches classes, such as “Talking Story,” which asks students to share significant life stories. She said participating in OLLI has impacted her life. 

OLLI members
OLLI members (from left) Lee Sianez, Barbara White and Rebecca Low

“One of the hardest things about retirement is losing your community,” Estrada said. “For so many people, community forms around work or neighborhood or kid activities. As your children leave home and a person retires, that community falls away.” 

That’s a void OLLI attempts to fulfill through its classes and activities, both of which are on pause currently because of the pandemic, including its 25th anniversary gala that was scheduled for Jan. 9. The center started at CSULB in 1996 with just nine class offerings.

OLLI, a center in the College of Health and Human Services, not only offers stress-free learning but social interaction and intergenerational contact for seniors who can find those experiences challenging. 

“Members often tell us, OLLI saves them from isolation and depression,” said Dr. Barbara White, OLLI executive director and faculty emerita from the School of Nursing. “We also hope we are a positive example of lifelong learning and active and healthy aging to our campus community.” 

White took over as executive director while still teaching in the nursing and gerontology department and works at providing an educational post-retirement community for seniors. CSULB’s OLLI is one of 125 Osher Foundation-endowed centers in colleges and universities nationwide whose motto is “Learn More – Age Less.” 

“OLLI has helped a lot of people who have been affected by change, whether it’s retirement, lost a partner or have had health issues,” said Karin Covey, OLLI vice president. “Maybe more importantly, OLLI has a social aspect, and a lot of people really thrive from the social aspect.” 

Covey first joined OLLI in 2001, enrolling in a computer class to further her research into her family genealogy. She soon became of volunteer in the office before taking over as treasurer and vice president – all the while taking courses. 

OLLI members in front of stage

“It’s an important part of my life,” said Covey, 83. “I like to work and keep busy. I like to work, solve problems and manage projects. 

“I definitely don’t fit in well with things like gardening.” 

OLLI’s biggest challenge, like many university-related centers and programs, has been navigating through the pandemic. The Center switched to remote learning in March 2020, offering classes on Zoom, which enabled it to reach students outside the area. But first they had to teach their students how to use Zoom. 

“When we had to shut down, we immediately pushed us into (remote learning),” Covey said. 

OLLI’s winter in-person session, which had 800 members, has been canceled, although many classes will continue to be held on Zoom. The Center is accepting enrollment for its spring session, which begins March 12.

“OLLI is still here, we’re still the same,” Covey said. 

*All photos were taken before COVID-19 protocols were instituted.