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Professors find passion, creativity in teaching OLLI community

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute offers short, high-level classes to adults over 50

Instructor standing at the front of a classroom talking to students.
December 16, 2022

Professors who teach courses in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at ASU say the experience indulges their passion and allows them to try new things with exceptionally engaged learners.

OLLI is a program in which Arizona State University’s top professors teach short, high-level, non-credit courses to adults over 50. ASU’s program is one of 125 at universities nationwide.

Teaching in OLLI “keeps me sharp,” says Kjir Hendrickson, a teaching professor in the School of Molecular Sciences who specializes in science communication.

“Teaching a group of students who are demographically quite different from typical college students challenges me to think about my teaching and, more than that, to think about my subject in different ways,” Hendrickson says.

“It brings to me the challenge of thinking on my feet.”

OLLI is housed in the School of Community Resources and Development and is part of the Learning Enterprise at ASU, an ecosystem of lifelong learning opportunities.

“OLLI gives exposure to the best of the best of ASU faculty, not just in teaching but with events,” says Richard Knopf, who was until recently the director of OLLI at ASU. He is now senior advisor to OLLI and is a professor in the School of Community Resources and Development.

The institute is trying to recruit more professors to teach courses. Knopf said that about 110 educators participate per semester. Most are ASU professors and lecturers, though several are experts in their fields from the community. In previous years, the number has been as high as 300, he said.

Hendrickson says that Osher courses require translating technical knowledge and expertise into practical applications and explanations.

“I translate it for somebody with no physics background, but I also have to be ready for that retired professor of quantum physics who is in the audience,” Hendrickson says.

“I bring my classroom teaching without losing accuracy or scientific rigor to make them not just understand but to have fun.”

Teaching a passion area

The drive to recruit more professors is part of a larger initiative to grow OLLI at ASU, according to Jared Swerzenski, who came on as director in October. He hopes to enhance the member experience and add more events and travel opportunities.

The core of OLLI is the courses, usually ranging from one to four sessions, taught by ASU’s top experts.

Swerzenski says that teaching is flexible — professors can decide their topic, number of sessions, dates and location. ASU professors are paid $125 per session taught, and emeritus professors receive $150.

“We don’t want to take anything away from their main job of teaching,” he says. “We’re another avenue for them to teach in a passion area.”

Swerzenski has been sitting in on several OLLI courses and is amazed at how eager the adults are.

“You don’t have people on their phone and you don’t have people coming in 15 minutes late,” he says.

OLLI membership costs $20 per semester and courses typically are $14 per session. Classes are held at four locations around the Valley, and several are offered on Zoom.

Among the offerings for spring 2023 are: “Through Women’s Eyes: 20th-Century U.S. History,” “Beginning Watercolor,” “Tai Chi for Health & Wellness,” “Race to the Moon: Tortoise, Hare, NASA & China,” analyses of the films “Casablanca” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Damn the Constitution, Full Speed Ahead” and “The Two Elizabeths: How Jewels & Fashion Defined Their Monarchies,” along with trail walks, a craft workshop and a free learning enrichment group on Zoom.

The program also pairs participants with ASU students through the Intergenerational Learning Service Scholars. This year, the scholars are students in the ASU School of Art who will teach classes in printmaking and sustainable dyes for fabric and paper.

OLLI has two new programs in the spring:

  • A partnership with the Salt River Brass Band that will feature two interactive classes on conducting, jazz and the brass band tradition. The cost includes a discounted ticket to a Salt River Brass Band concert.
  • A four-day, behind-the-scenes experience at the 29th Annual Sedona International Film Festival in February.

Also in 2023, the program will resume its OLLI Corps trip to Belize, last offered in 2019, in which participants visit local residents and learn about solutions to global problems in health, environment and education.

Bringing life experience

Eduardo Pagán enjoys sharing his passion for Arizona history with as many people as he can.

“The Osher population really appreciates studying subjects in a way that might not always resonate with a traditional college-age student,” he says.

“As someone who’s dedicated their life to the study of a particular subject matter, it’s always rewarding to be in a class of people who are really excited to hear what you have to share.”

Over his years of teaching, he’s seen his pop culture references resonate less and less with undergraduates.

“But I can make a reference to John Wayne movies or Clint Eastwood movies and the people in the OLLI generation know what I’m talking about,” says Pagán, who is the Bob Stump Endowed Professor of History at ASU.

He is teaching two OLLI courses in the spring: “Women Western Artists in a Man’s World” and “Diving Into Family History & Genealogical Research.”

“My purpose is not to train someone to be good at Trivial Pursuit. It’s to train people to learn from the past,” he says.

“I can engage my Osher students in a more complicated level of questioning and discussion because of the life experiences they carry and opportunities they have had.

“And another benefit is that there’s no grading papers.”

Rosemarie Dombrowski has taught more than 25 unique courses in her 10 years as an OLLI instructor, including “Emily Dickinson’s Guide to DIY Publishing” and "Radical Rebellions: The Poetry of Social Revolution America."

“It’s a great place to pilot things and focus on a niche that you wouldn’t be able to focus on in a 15-week course,” she says.

“All of the students definitely want to be there, and it’s great because once you have an OLLI cohort, they’ll continue to take your classes no matter what you offer.

“If I spend three class periods on Anne Sexton, a lot of (undergraduates) won’t be reeling it in, but I’ve never had an OLLI student say, ‘That’s too much Anne Sexton.’ They only sign up if they’re in the rabbit hole with you.”

Dombrowski, a teaching professor in the College of Integrative Science and Arts, also is the inaugural Poet Laureate of Phoenix. She is teaching “Writing for Health & Well-Being” and “A Celebration of Poets Laureate for National Poetry Month” in March.

She said that the commitment to teach in OLLI isn’t onerous.

“If you have a favorite lecture, offer your favorite lecture,” she says. “You can do a bunch of one-offs. If you love it, you can decide to do more in the future.”

Hendrickson is teaching OLLI courses in quantum physics, chemistry and scientific discoveries in the spring, and said they are learning along with the class.

“There isn’t that separation of faculty and students you have in a typical class.

“We’re on that journey of lifelong learning together.”

Enrollment for the spring 2023 semester of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at ASU opens Monday, Dec. 19, and classes begin the week of Jan. 17.

Top image: Kjir Hendrickson, a teaching professor in the School of Molecular Sciences, taught an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute course on climate change at the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus during the fall semester. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News