“OLLI saved my life,” says 85-year-old Jeanne Johnson. Her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer on the same day as 9/11 and died soon after. “My children were wonderful, but it was up to me to make a new life. I turned to OLLI.”

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) is a Sonoma State University educational program that provides college-level classes for those aged 50 and over, without the required books or exams. “It’s much more!” Jeanne exclaims. “It’s a family of friends.”

Each spring, fall and winter, a series of classes are held for six weeks on campus and in Oakmont that cover subjects as varied as: Prehistoric Europe, Classic Films, Beethoven, Grateful Dead Band, Opera Essentials, China and Japan in Conflict, John Steinbeck, Poetry, Michelangelo, and Sonoma County Agriculture. Classes are held for six weeks, during which students enjoy lectures and field trips.

“What surprised me,” Carin Jacobs said, having become program director two years ago, “is the loyalty that students have to the program. The smallest update can generate an onslaught of emails. With 1,600 students, that can be a lot of communication. They see it as their program.”

The OLLI Curriculum Committee reviewed more than 96 applications last year from potential instructors. Fran Claggett, student, instructor and Curriculum Committee member, says, “Who wouldn’t want to teach a class of interested, attentive, and educated students? It’s a professor’s dream!” OLLI is looking for degreed instructors with a strong academic background that are experts in their subjects. Of the current faculty, 95 percent have a PhD.

Fran has just been presented the prestigious ‘Stolman Outstanding Volunteer Award,’ given in the name of the founder Ed Stolman, for exceptional service to the program. She has been with OLLI since its beginning in 2001, and is proud to be celebrating its 15th year. SSU’s program was the second one established of 119 throughout the country. “Stolman was the visionary,” Fran says. “He convinced philanthropist Bernard Osher to seed the program.” Financial stability for OLLI derives mostly from tuition fees, student donations, and a smaller portion from the Osher endowment.

“Besides the quality educational factor and friendships made,” Fran says, her voice rising along with her animated hands, “I’ve gone on OLLI excursions, headed by knowledgeable professors, to China and Egypt.” Trips to Italy and other European countries have also been taken. This term an instructor is leading a trip to Cuba.

Field trips have included visits to the Oakland Museum, di Rosa preserve in Napa, the Grace Hudson Gallery in Ukiah, and to the Jack Leissring Gallery of Modern Art in Santa Rosa.

OLLI encourages ‘clubs’ that meet between classes. Phil Harriman, student and instructor and member of several OLLI committees, heads up the Science Club. They hear lecturers on biochemistry and geology and take field trips to places like the Bodega Marine Laboratory.

OLLI instructor Charlene Lohmeier says, “What surprised me the most when I began teaching for OLLI was the high level of interest exhibited by the students. They are so alive mentally, and very intellectually curious.” Lohmeier teaches the history of the Stuart Dynasty and a very different class, Color Confidence, where students seek to discover the properties of color and how it affects one personally.

As Fran says, “I have become interested in things I didn’t even know I was interested in until I took an OLLI class.” And thus, it is so. Give OLLI a try. All you have to gain is everything!  SD


Osher Lifelong Learning Institute
Sonoma State University