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Lifelong Learning Goes Coast to Coast

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Nicole Militello

Senior Media Relations Specialist

Nicole Militello

DU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute makes a move online and grows during pandemic

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“When you get older, you can become too set in your ways, dull and uninteresting, so it’s important to keep on learning.”

OLLI member Anne Anselment
OLLI member Anne Anselment

Those are the thoughts of Anne Anselment (MSW ’88), who is committed to keeping her brain sharp as a longtime member of the University of Denver’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).

OLLI is a nationwide adult learning membership program created and designed specifically for anyone age 50 and older by the Bernard Osher Foundation. Like its 120 counterparts across the country, the DU program boasts that “curiosity never retires” under its roof.

And certainly not because of a pandemic. Even so, classes this spring looked a little different, thanks to the coronavirus. Instead of meeting with her peers in the classroom, as Anselment has done for the past 12 years, she found herself logging on to Zoom for her meditation course.

When the pandemic shut down face-to-face classes earlier in the year, Barbe Ratcliffe, the executive director of OLLI at DU, and other leaders scrambled to put classes online. In just a matter of days, they were able to offer 86 classes to members. They hosted Zoom open houses to show members how easy the new online “classroom” would be and gave them a feel for the experience. Thanks to the switch to online learning, OLLI was able to reach members from coast to coast and to add more than 80 new members to its programming.

“I had the opportunity to spend time with Lotta Granholm-Bentley and the staff at the Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging,” Ratcliffe explains. “What they have taught me about the importance of keeping the brain engaged for the constituency we serve — that’s why it took very little when I got some nudging from our strong facilitators and staff saying, ‘let’s try online,’ to say ‘let’s go for it.’”

Anselment with her daughter on an OLLI trip to Montreal
Anselment with her daughter on an OLLI trip

For Anselment, the switch to online classes has just been another opportunity in her learning journey. Previously, she worked on her undergraduate education in Missouri, Illinois and Colorado. Then, she studied at DU’s Graduate School of Social Work and graduated in 1988 when she was 57 years old. She went on to work three years in a children’s hospital as a pediatric social worker. Now, she is still jumping at every new learning opportunity coming her way.

“It’s a good place to learn and to keep yourself active,” Anselment says of OLLI. “It’s good mental stimulation, which I think we all need.”

As the spring session wraps up this week, Ratcliffe is excited about the summer seminar opportunities and the chance to reach more leaders with the new online format.

“We all align with the love of learning,” Ratcliffe says. “It’s to keep us all healthy and having fun.”

With the spring session wrapping up, here are a few of the classes OLLI members participated in:

Who Knew! The Lives and Times of Coloradans Honored in the Capitol, taught by Ellen Stanton

“I was inspired to teach the class because as a volunteer guide at the Colorado Capitol, I realized that neither I, nor many visitors, had an understanding of the ‘“who and why’” of many people honored in the 33 stained glass windows in the Capitol,” Stanton explains.

Her class members were excited about the new, online experience that allowed them to participate even when they were traveling, dealing with poor health or needing to be with family members. “Having more people form a wider geographic area makes for a richer experience for students as well as [for the] instructor,” Stanton says. “The OLLI courses offered an opportunity to explore new ideas in a safe social setting; it was highly successful.”

Using Nutrition to Stay Healthy in Times of Stress, taught by Penny Friedberg

Wholistic nutrition is not as simple as diet books and media articles [talking] about what you should eat,” Friedberg says. “The premise is each of us is individual and needs to understand what our own body is saying. We need to be healthy as long as it fits under ‘whole, real, mostly organic non-GMO food.’”

Friedberg says she has a love for online learning, and her students have adjusted to their new, virtual classroom.

“I think they are finding our newly instituted online classes an important and useful way to spend their time during their quarantine at home,” Friedberg says. “It gives them contact with other students and a sense of shared community.”

Tracing Your Family History, taught by Carol Darrow

People really were surprised at how involved they became in searching for their grandparents and great-grandparents,” Darrow says. “They started out thinking it would be easy and were surprised to find those people in unfamiliar areas of the country and working at jobs they didn’t know about. Then they really got excited about discovering what more they could learn and how far back they could go.”

Like the teachers and students in other classes, Darrow says the move online has been a great way to stay connected.

“Zoom has been a magical tool for most of us,” she says. “We can continue to learn and share information and ideas.”

Responding to Crises Fast and Slow: Viral Pandemics and Climate Change, taught by Phil Nelson

Pandemics and climate change are global-scale threats, with very different footprints, and the world as a whole has reacted differently to the two.  Or has it?” Nelson asks. “We examine the similarities and differences in our personal and social responses to climate change and to the viral pandemic, highlighting the responses in Colorado.”

Nelson says his class shared their personal experiences as the pandemic reached the United States.

We hear stories of those who narrowly got on ‘the last plane out’ to return home as international travel shut down,” Nelson says. “The online OLLI format, cleverly devised in ‘crisis mode,’ provides a way to alleviate the barrier of isolation imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.