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Knowledge and community at Senior College

Imagine taking a college class on a fascinating subject with no homework, tests or sky-high tuition fees, offered at a location near you. Welcome to the wonderful world of Senior College.

For folks 50 and older living in the Portland area, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute offers a wide range of classes year-round at the Wishcamper Center on the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus. OLLI is one of 17 Senior Colleges around the state that offer lifelong learning classes designed to meet the interests of older students.

“OLLI students are unquenchably curious about the world and how it works. Everyone wants to be there and looks forward to discovering new things,” says Janet Stebbins, chairperson of OLLI’s advisory board.  “The social awkwardness of youth is gone. People are comfortable with themselves, freeing their minds for knowledge.”

Stebbins, 63, can attest to the power of the Senior College experience. After a career as a high school teacher and administrator in Connecticut, she retired several years ago to the Portland area. “One of the first things I heard from people when I arrived was, ‘do you know about OLLI yet?,’ so I decided to sign up for a class,” she says.

That class—an exploration of the origins of the universe—was Stebbins’ first step into the OLLI fold. A newcomer to Maine, Stebbins found instant community. “I belonged in a flash and quickly had a large circle of interesting classmates to engage with,” she says.

Janet Stebbins, shown here with her dog, Amber, at her Portland home, has been an OLLI student and instructor and is chairperson of OLLI’s advisory board. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

OLLI classes are peer-taught, and instructors come from all walks of life. The teacher of the cosmology class, for instance, who became Stebbins’ friend and mentor, is a psychologist with a lifelong passion for space. “The biggest thing [OLLI instructors] have in common is an enthusiasm for sharing their special interest or expertise with the community,” Stebbins says.

It wasn’t long before Stebbins was encouraged to teach a class. Her mentor told her that people vote with their feet, so she should offer something she’s excited about and see what happens. The class was a go, and she led students through an exploration of World War I through the lens of a British novel, “A Month in the Country.” “It was great fun,” Stebbins recalls. “Without the pressure of tests or homework, we could go in any direction we wanted, including watching the movie based on the book.”

Given this easy camaraderie, it’s no surprise that Stebbins went on to join a writer’s workshop, rekindling her longtime love of poetry. The group published a couple of poetry anthologies, and Stebbins even published her own book of poetry.  She co-chaired OLLI’s annual literary fair and then joined the OLLI advisory board, taking over as chairwoman two years ago.

“OLLI is the kind of place where someone new can take a class in the fall, and end up teaching a class by spring,” Stebbins says. “People initially join Senior College for the course offerings, but soon realize their classmates are fascinating people who share their interests. I’ve seen folks buddying up to choose classes together for the next term, and even carpooling.”

Classes meet for two hours once a week for eight weeks in the fall and spring terms, and in the winter and summer terms for six weeks. OLLI’s annual membership fee is $25, plus a nominal tuition for each course.

A look at OLLI’s fall course catalog shows an eclectic mix of offerings. From history (“Plantagenets of Britain”), to politics (“Domestic Policy Issues in Trump’s Washington”), to science (“Geology of Maine”), to literature (“Falstaff: Shakespeare’s Great Comic Character”), to wellness (“Empathy: What Is It?”), the choices are lavish. A variety of art, foreign language and writing classes—along with weekend workshops on just about every topic—are also offered each term.

Often, the enthusiasm for a particular class results in an ongoing special interest group, often student-led. From September through June, OLLI members may participate in outside-the-classroom activities that include acting, bicycling, book clubs, bridge, photography, singing, skiing, ukulele, walking and wine tasting.

As an advisory board member, Stebbins keeps her ear to the ground about members’ suggestions and ideas. “We were getting feedback that members would like an opportunity to meet informally outside of class,” she says. “We started ‘OLLI Members Mingle’ once a term and 40 people showed up to the first one!”

Senior College is a delightful way to keep learning throughout the second act of life. And there won’t be a test on that.

Interested in Senior College? Find one near you.

With 2,100 members, OLLI is the largest Senior College in the state, but if you don’t live in Portland, never fear. There are 17 Senior Colleges throughout Maine. Check out the Maine Senior College Network to learn more about Senior College and to find a location near you: www.maineseniorcollege.org or call 207-780-4128.

Lori Douglas Clark is a journalist, poet and community volunteer who is enjoying her first Senior College class at the University of Maine at Augusta.

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