WVU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute keeps the neurons firing and the fun going.

Earlier this decade, Jim Held was a theater professor at WVU. He was also teaching classes to people over 50 at the university’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, as a volunteer. One day, he says, he realized he was having so much fun teaching seniors that he would just go ahead and retire from the university. “Seniors have huge life experience and a zest for living and so much to offer, and they’re happy to offer it,” he says. “So we end up having these vibrant discussions.”

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at WVU is one of 120 OLLIs at colleges and universities across the country, all funded in part by the Bernard Osher Foundation. Their aim is to foster community for people over 50 centered on noncredit courses and social and volunteer opportunities. “It’s learning for the fun of it,” says Jascenna Haislet, director of OLLI at WVU since 2016.

In any given quarter, OLLI offers dozens of classes taught by members of the community—people who have a passion or expertise they’d like to share, a fair number of whom are university professors. Play the Irish tin whistle, discuss stories in The New Yorker, up your investment game, study Paleo-Indian archaeology, understand the challenges to lawyers trying to overturn unlawful convictions—these are just some of the courses offered over the past year.

OLLI is a member organization. “Each program is different—we get to set it up the way the members want it to be,” Haislet says. WVU’s is an active program. Haislet came here in the fall of 2016 from Missoula, Montana, where she served as program manager for the OLLI at the University of Montana. That program had more members than WVU’s 650, consistent with the community’s far larger size, but many fewer offerings—around 20 classes a term compared with 30 to 50.

Activities at OLLI go well beyond classes. The organization hosts meetings of interest groups at its space in the Mountaineer Mall. Groups in yarn arts and writing are meeting over the summer, and past groups have included music sessions with the MonRiver New Horizons Band, painting with watercolors, an astrology discussion group, and others.

In both Morgantown and the OLLI program WVU started in Charleston in 2014, the courses with the highest enrollment tend to be in the humanities. “Arts classes, Shakespeare, a film forum, and also music classes are popular,” Haislet says. “Our cooking classes are very popular, too.” In Morgantown, those are offered at the Monongalia County Technical Education Center in First Ward.

OLLI also organizes in-house concerts and group attendance for members at events like theater performances and baseball games. Farther excursions can be field trips to places like Pearl Buck’s birthplace in Pocahontas County. And members can arrange discounted group travel through the tour company Collette—upcoming trips include Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans in October and Ireland in March 2018.

Held, the former theater professor, doesn’t just teach at OLLI. He has also taken classes in healthy eating, elder law, and the Hebrew Bible. “Courses that are offered tend to be things that are of real interest to continuing learners, and we’re working on getting an even broader selection,” says Held, who is also immediate past president of the OLLI board. “Along with a vibrant arts scene and everything else we have, it’s a terrific activity to have in our community.” olliatwvu.org 

Pam Kasey
Written by Pam Kasey
Pam Kasey has traveled, brewed, farmed, counseled, and renovated, but most loves to write. She has degrees in economics from the University of Chicago and in journalism from West Virginia University. She loves celebrating Morgantown and West Virginia as executive editor at New South Media.