Women and men enrolled in the Felicianas Chapter of OLLI at LSU attended yoga classes in Grace Episcopal Church twice a week during the spring. Photos by Collin Richie.

Advanced education: Lifelong learning classes forge friendships and encourage growth

Whoever said learning and growing comes to a halt once you graduate from college has obviously never attended a course through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Take, for example, a recent Thursday morning when women and men set down their mats and struck the downward-facing-dog yoga pose in Grace Episcopal Church in St. Francisville. All were enrolled in OLLI at LSU, and all were over the age of 50. It was coursework that all readily enjoyed.

OLLI at LSU is a continuing education program with a local mission to foster lifelong learning and individual growth for learners by creating intellectually stimulating learning opportunities that enrich lives. The program, which is one of a network of 120 university-affiliated lifelong learning programs supported by The Bernard Osher Foundation, celebrated its 20th anniversary last year.

More than 1,100 members enjoy the benefits of OLLI in Louisiana through its three chapters: Cajun Prairie, Felicianas and Lagniappe. Each chapter has volunteer leadership and determines the courses and programs offered. The majority of the courses in the local Lagniappe chapter are taken at Broadmoor United Methodist Church.

“OLLI programs are offered in every state, and membership continues to grow,” says Joanne Johnson, program manager for OLLI at LSU. “I am excited to be a part of a program where the members come together to learn, stay active and make friends because they want to participate and not because they have to participate.”

Interested learners can become a member of OLLI at LSU for $50 a year, which includes countless benefits including three semesters of classes. Members may sign up for as many classes as they want per semester. And not only do they enjoy their choice of a couple hundred courses, but they are also provided with special field trips and scheduled coffee events with featured speakers.

“Socialization is a big part of OLLI,” says Lagniappe Chapter special events planning committee chair Connie Smith. “We have quite a few widows and widowers, and this is a great way for them to find someone to talk with and to network. People as they get older start to miss their children and their grandchildren, but this is a way for them to keep healthy and exercise their minds.”

The Felicianas Chapter offered a Beyond Beginning Pickleball class to encourage physical fitness.

“What I love seeing the most is the friendships that are made when OLLI members take courses, go on field trips and volunteer on committees,” adds Johnson. “Families often get busy in day-to-day responsibilities, so OLLI at LSU becomes like another family for our members.”

Lagniappe Chapter audio-visual manager Dr. Robert Smith agrees. “It’s companionship,” he says. “Loneliness starts to come in for older people as the years go by. They don’t eat as well, they don’t see as many people, they don’t get as much intellectual stimulation, but when you come to OLLI, you get all of that stuff. The socialization amongst the older folks is just as important as the classes. And it keeps the instructors sharp as well. We have some instructors teaching who are in their 80s.”

One popular course is Flicks & Food, a three-session class that combines movies with dinner at Juban’s restaurant. Each movie is explained and discussed by an instructor from LSU during the class session. Other in-demand courses include art history and classes on the U.S. Constitution and the Ottoman Empire.

Dr. Louis Leggio, a member who has been a part of OLLI from the start, says he favors the literature classes.

Students in the Pastel Techniques class get hands-on, personal instruction while learning about the art medium.

“I love the whole program and I take a lot of the courses. There is just a tremendous variety and I see myself taking things that I never would have thought of taking in the past,” says Leggio. “The program is a real mental challenge. And it’s interesting to interact with instructors who may present an alternative view than you have. I really look forward to taking each class.”

And it’s not just the students who get enjoyment out of the program. The dedicated instructors are passionate about OLLI as well. “Many of the instructors are retired from their professions and are now teaching a hobby that they have a passion for,” says Smith.

Take Bud Johnson for example. “I have a background in LSU football,” says Johnson, a first-time instructor who teaches a course on the history of the sport at LSU. “I decided to become an instructor after someone who had taken a course through OLLI suggested it to me.”

The Lagniappe Chapter in Baton Rouge of OLLI took a bus trip to Shadows-on-the-Teche in New Iberia.

Johnson said he enjoys finding interesting facts about LSU football that most people wouldn’t know and that would amuse those who may not be hardcore sports fans. “There are a lot of things that I’ve picked up over the years through reading, and it’s fun to have knowledge to share with others. There are a lot of interesting courses and I’m intrigued by some of the things that are taught here at OLLI,” he adds.

Erica Daigle, who teaches Shakespeare and mythology courses, says she truly enjoys working with older learners. “I taught at the college level for a long time, and this is by far more enjoyable. The students really want to be here and they are really interested in what there is to learn,” she says. “I think the best thing about our courses are that they are fun, but they are also intellectually stimulating. I expect discussion and participation. This program is a great opportunity for people who maybe have not been in school for many years to kind of jump back in and experience that.”

Gardening course instructor Claire Fontenot concurs, adding that some of the courses offered through OLLI are more of a mental challenge than typical leisure classes. “We cover languages, we cover art, we cover history, and we do not duplicate LSU leisure classes,” she says. “I want them to be able to enjoy it, but they’re also going to learn what I want them to learn before it’s time to leave.”

For more information on OLLI at LSU, visit outreach.lsu.edu/olli or email [email protected].