SOU's lifelong learning sees numbers jump

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Southern Oregon University saw a bump in popularity since joining forces with the national Bernard Osher Foundation last year, and members are hoping to continue the momentum with a second $100,000 grant and a possible endowment.

Membership grew 21 percent, from 654 to 789 this year, after the education program for seniors received its first $100,000 grant to double its classroom space, increase parking and update technology.

OLLI-SOU, formerly Southern Oregon Learning in Retirement, also expanded into Medford for the first time last year, with a nine-part pilot lecture series at the Rogue Valley Manor, which attracted about 75 members each time, Embry said. This year, the second grant will fund four full classes at the SOU/Rogue Community College Higher Education Center in Medford in addition to the 49 volunteer-taught classes at SOU for the fall term.

Members pay $100 per year and can take an unlimited number of courses during each of the three terms.

"We thought we had a model program on our own, but with their help, we've really gone boom," said Ray Embry, who teaches English classes through OLLI-SOU and is helping to write a $1 million endowment grant that would provide a yearly $43,000.

The money is not guaranteed, but the odds are in the group's favor because the foundation, which runs 121 similar programs across the country, asked them to apply.

"As long as you're doing things that they like, you're pretty much a shoe-in," said Cliff Edwards, vice president of the OLLI Council and grant-writing coordinator. "I just don't like to think of it that way. I'm always saying we're hopeful at this stage, but we don't know for certain."

The money would allow more seniors to get involved in a program that can serve as a lifeline.

"We have people saying it's their reason for getting out of bed &

that it's their lifesaver," Edwards said.

One woman bought a membership for her father to help him recover from the loss of his wife, and it gave him a reason to be involved in the community again, Edwards said.

Edwards started taking courses two years ago. He also teaches a class on the history of oil, based on his 25-year career with ExxonMobil. Many of the instructors have backgrounds in university teaching, but not all, and the diversity of life experience from both teachers and students are what make the classes interesting.

To recruit more instructors, OLLI will offer compensation for the first time this year, with a discount in membership dues or credit at the SOU bookstore.

Despite its continuous expansion over a 15-year period, OLLI remains a membership-run program with volunteer teachers.

"All along through OLLI's history we were concerned about growing," said Jeanne Stallman, the executive director of extended campus programs at SOU who oversees the program. "We've been afraid if you get bigger and bigger, it's not going to feel like our program anymore, but amazingly that hasn't happened."

Today, OLLI leaders look back with pride from the program's humble beginnings in 1993.

"They were thrilled to have 75 members that first year," Stallman said. "Nobody really expected it to grow ten times that size."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .

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