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OLLI helps folks keep learning in their retirement years

OLLI students take it all in during a meditation and contemplation class led by George McClendon (not pictured) at Chico State.

OLLI students take it all in during a meditation and contemplation class led by George McClendon (not pictured) at Chico State.

Photo By nick dobis

Get schooled: For more information on OLLI, call 898-6679 or visit

In the torrential rain and unforgiving wind, Kent Jackson made his way through the recent stormy weather to register for classes for the spring semester. Once inside the Chico Masonic Family Center, he and many other students shed their rain-slicked coats and huddled around sign-up tables.

But for Jackson and his classmates, this semester won’t require $100 textbooks and mind-numbing final exams. In fact, attendance is not mandatory. One of the few requirements for these special students is that they must be at least 60 years old.

Jackson is enrolled in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), which offers non-credit classes to senior citizens and started its spring semester along with Chico State’s regular student body on Monday (Jan. 25). The purpose of the institute is to give retired people the opportunity to meet others and continue their pursuit of knowledge in a friendly environment with their peers.

The institute first arrived at Chico State in 2005, joining a network of learning-in-retirement programs that other universities, such as Sonoma State, offer to elders in their communities. According to its Web site, Chico State’s OLLI has around 700 members and will offer 40 courses this semester.

Jackson, who has been a student for five years, originally signed up out of curiosity but said he continues to come back because it is a great place to learn and meet new people. This semester one of the classes he planned to take was “Cracker Barrel,” a forum in which students share their perspectives on current events.

“It is a fun thing to do socially, and it also helps keep the brain matter stimulated; if you don’t use it, you lose it,” Jackson said. “The instructors here are geared to teach toward our interests, not toward tests and grades.”

Many students who signed up for the spring semester have been OLLI students before, but there were also quite a few new faces in the crowd at the orientation Jan. 20.

“I have a friend who does it and told me about it, so I thought I’d try it,” said Janey Davies, who was about to start her first semester at OLLI. “I like how it is a relaxed environment. I have grandchildren that I often visit, and it’s no big deal if I miss a class.”

Ballroom dancing instructors Jack and Kathy Ashcraft have been helping OLLI students learn how to better their dance moves for about five years. The husband-and-wife duo first started dancing 10 years ago and wanted to give something back to the community. Their motto: Never miss a chance to dance.

“I think the best part of teaching is seeing people improve,” Jack said. “We try to produce a joy in dancing, rather then have people just shuffle around the dance floor.”

Classes have already started, but it is not too late to sign up. An annual registration fee of $65 covers both spring and fall semesters. Students may sign up for as many classes as they want. The fee covers some class materials and field trips offered in a few of the courses. Membership also includes a monthly newsletter, general meetings, luncheons, and the opportunity to vote for the board of directors and the budget.

OLLI offers a wide variety of classes, including meditation and contemplation, photography, writing, French, bird watching, California climate and ballroom dance. The instructors are volunteers who enjoy teaching students who are enthusiastic to learn.

“Unlike some college and high-school students, these people are intelligent and curious. They are here not because they have to be here, but because they want to be here,” said Stewart Monroe, a geology instructor for OLLI. “I really enjoy the interaction with these people. Even when a tragic event like the Haiti earthquake happens, people come to class because they know it can be instructional and they can learn more.”