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On-campus institute fosters lifelong learning

A few dozen students sit in a computer lab, clicking at their screens as Frank Zacherl, volunteer instructor at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), displays a homemade movie from an overhead projector. The course is “Fun with Windows XP,” and it is unlike any other at USF.

Fun with Windows might sound like an oxymoron, Vacherl said, but it is his duty to ensure that the class lives up to its name.

This course and others like it at the OLLI have no grading system and no prerequisites; most of the students are not even enrolled at USF. The OLLI is an education center geared toward older adults looking to expand their knowledge in a variety of subjects. It is open to anyone with a thirst for knowledge and only requires students to pay a small annual fee. The Institute’s unique approach recently earned a $1 million endowment from the Bernard Osher Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to higher education and the arts.

While the Osher Institute is located on USF property, it has a very different mission than the rest of the University. Participants focus on sharing knowledge rather than rushing toward a degree.

“We are a learning community of older adults,” said Ara Rogers, OLLI director. “Learning, once it’s detached from things like grades and requirements, can be a lot of fun.”

The OLLI functions more like a membership organization than a school. Although the Institute employs administrators and a small staff, it is run almost entirely by members who volunteer their time to work in the office, teach classes and coach fellow students.

“We are very much a volunteer-run and -led organization,” Rogers said.

Contributions from the Bernard Osher Foundation make up the only outside funding the OLLI receives. USF provides space for offices and classrooms and small annual member fees cover OLLI’s day-to-day expenses, Rogers said.

The $1 million endowment cannot be spent directly. It remains untouched in an account, but any interest it generates belongs to the Institute. The OLLI has received three contributions from the Osher Foundation in as many years, including $100,000 grants in 2005 and 2006.

Since membership dues cover operating costs, the gift from the Osher Foundation can be spent on specific projects or goals. At the OLLI there is no shortage of suggestions from members.

“When you receive funds, it’s kind of like winning the lottery,” Rogers said. “All of a sudden you have a lot of friends and relatives that need the money.”

Rogers said she has assembled a committee of respected OLLI members to decide how to distribute the funds.

SeniorNet, a branch of the Osher Institute that teaches older students how to use computers and other technology, is one area that could benefit from the additional funding, since the cost of equipment for these courses goes beyond that of a normal classroom.

Donna Gilbert came to the Osher Institute after she bought her first computer. She was frustrated with the limited instruction she found in books and manuals.

“I started saying to myself, ‘There must be a better way to learn how to use this machine,'” she said.

After taking a few SeniorNet classes, Gilbert became so adept with the technology she was asked to become a volunteer instructor. She now serves as a learning coach in “Fun with Windows XP,” helping students one-on-one while Zacherl instructs the class.

“The coaches can help the individual students, rather than the instructor having to walk around the room,” Gilbert said.

Rogers said each class has several coaches and the average instructor-to-student ratio is 3-to-1, an unheard-of proportion elsewhere on campus.

While continued learning in old age may be the last thing on students’ minds, Rogers insists that the learning process is not over after graduation.

“It’s really about learning for the sake of learning,” she said. “You really have a lot to look forward to.”