History of Osher Life Long Learners at UCSC

Back in 2014, as OLLI celebrated 30 years, Nancy Mead wrote a short essay outlining the history of the organization. Here's the text:

As we approach the 30th anniversary of UCSC’s Lifelong Learners, it seems both timely and important to chronicle some of the more important elements in the history of this organization. A few of its earliest members are still with us and have been invaluable in providing information that would help flesh out the details of its past.

Jim Faris addresses members on the 30th anniversary of the organization at the general meeting on September 21, 2014

What began as a small group of retirees committed to the pursuit of lifelong learning is now an entity of over 800 members affiliated with the national Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. And, though the university has played an important role in the way of offering support, the group itself has grown and prospered largely through the efforts of its members, many of whom have volunteered generous amounts of time in order to assure its success. In this way, the UCSC lifelong learning group represents a departure from the majority of OLLI’s extant today, most of which grew out of university extension programs within a paid administrative structure. It is a testimony to what can be accomplished with a volunteer population of dedicated, competent people with a mission. For there is no question that the shared wish for learning opportunities within a non-competitive social milieu is the driving force within this organization. How it came to be is an interesting story.

As we know, UCSC dates back only to 1965, but by 1984 it had a fair number of students who were older, lived in town and were not involved in a degree program. In the fall of that year a group of five such students met off campus to socialize and were struck with the need for more opportunities to gather on a regular basis. All were retirees who shared a common interest in further learning experiences but also felt the need for social contact with peers. They had an idea that would give structure to this, and they proceeded to outline an organization which could fill the void. They envisioned monthly meetings, officers to lead the group, and a set of bylaws. It was anticipated that they might seek some kind of support from the university itself, especially with regard to meeting places. The five were Margaret Byrnes, Jim Faris, Barnie Farneroff, Silvia Miller, and Mary Ann Raedler. Each was charged with a particular responsibility in facilitating the long-term goal of a formal organizational structure. Jim Faris looked into other campus-related organizations for ideas as to bylaws. Meetings were scheduled for Sunday mornings. Initially they were held at the Women’s Center (Cardiff House) on the campus. With an informal effort to attract members, there were soon 40-50 people in attendance at these meetings. Through the campus Speakers’ Bureau it was possible to regularly find speakers. These were by and large faculty personnel who were happy to talk about their research or other aspects of their subject matter.

The group selected the name Lifelong Learners, and they sought to ally themselves with the university by identifying as a student group. They were thus able to secure help in finding a meeting place, ultimately being assisted from within the office handling issues concerning returning students. Later their status as a student group was challenged by the fact that “students” were defined as those taking a certain number of credit classes. The Lifelong Learner members, as a whole, did not qualify, and, as a result, they sought a new way to assure university support. This time they applied for status as one of the UCSC Friends Groups and were accepted as such.

Meanwhile, the group broadened its offerings by starting an interest group that would meet to explore memoir writing. Jim and Paula Faris were the original conveners and soon had a group of nine or ten people who met regularly. A few years later the pair also started a film group. This is still in operation. These are thought to be the first of the interest groups, which number over fifty as of this writing.

One of the members who had joined somewhat later, after retirement, was Lois Widom. No longer having to work, she had occupied herself with auditing courses at the university. She was particularly impressed with her experiences in classes given by John Dizikes, She took everything he taught and eventually persuaded him to teach a mini-class to Lifelong Learner members, as a volunteer. This was the first offering of its kind. The idea was to make the class available to all by setting a nominal fee. The initial class, in the summer of 1997, was four sessions long and had a tuition of twenty dollars. This remains the fee structure for such classes today. From the beginning the organization made a commitment to making things affordable to the membership, most of whom were retired. John Dizikes was later instrumental in involving other of his colleagues to give such classes on a voluntary basis. Spring and fall courses are now a regular feature of the program.

In the early nineties Lois also started an interest group, Art and Architecture, which featured field trips to museums and art shows as well as architectural sites. She had an enthusiastic following, and she continues to lead the group to this day.

By the later nineties Lifelong Learners had a membership of eighty-five to ninety. One of the issues faced during that time was a new university requirement that all Friends Groups channel their funds through the university. Some Lifelong Learner members strongly objected to this, but the university’s mandate prevailed, and since then all dues, fees, etc. have gone through the University Foundation.

As has been noted, the cost for belonging to and participating in Lifelong Learner activities has always been modest. At the same time, the funds were adequate to cover expenses, as these were minimal due to the extent of volunteer manpower. Early on it was established that a certain portion of any excess funds should go to providing book scholarships to returning or transfer students. This became known as the Silvia Miller Fund, in recognition of one of the original founders, who had herself come to the campus late in life in order to work toward a college degree. The practice is still in effect, with larger membership numbers making it possible to increase donations to this cause.

Along with the growth of the group came ever-expanding needs for help from the university, particularly as to meeting places. By the late nineties the group still had no permanent home on campus and needed help each month in securing space. By this time too mailings were being handled through the university, and it also was necessary to get purchase orders in order to access funds. For a number of years the STARS office, headed by Corinne Miller, was the intermediary in these operations. Corinne had a 27-year history with the group by the time she retired in 2012, and she was a supportive and effective booster of Lifelong Learner causes throughout that time. She still serves on its board, even in retirement.

The organization continued to grow and thrive into the new millennium. By 2009, as it celebrated its twenty-fifth year, a new prospect beckoned. Through the university, the Osher Foundation approached the membership about possibly affiliating with their Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. This offered a million dollar endowment, to be administered through the university, with a payout of 4% interest yearly. Coming at a time when the nation’s entire economy was severely challenged, with universities facing drastic cuts, it was hard to ignore . A lifelong learning group at Cabrillo College had recently disbanded when the college withdrew its support. So, in spite of reservations from some, the membership voted to accept the Osher proposal, and a formal application was prepared and accepted. As of 2011 the official name of the group became the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of California Santa Cruz. Though other University of California campuses also had affiliated with Osher, the Santa Cruz organization is the only one that had a pre-existing, peer-led structure. However, in recognition of the importance of services provided by the university and in view of the university’s budget problems, it was decided that a portion of the Osher yearly revenue would go to the university. This policy continues.

Though membership numbers had swelled to over 350 at the time of the Osher affiliation, the Foundation requested a membership of 500. Largely through word-of-mouth efforts and newspaper announcements the desired number was reached rather promptly, and the numbers have continued to grow. As of this writing the membership stands at over 800. In 2007, we moved our meeting venue from the Coffee Shop (images on this page) to the Event Center at Stevenson College. Many people value OLLI, not only for its monthly talks and its class offerings, but as a great way to meet and get to know others, particularly through the interest groups. For the academic year 2015–16 we moved the the College Nine and John R. Lewis College Multipurpose Room.

As the membership has grown it has been helpful to rely on newer forms of communication, most especially the internet. Since the fall of 2006 the organization has maintained a website. It offers detailed information about all current events as well as maintaining a history of sorts by listing all past boards of directors, minutes of board meetings, accounts of all previously held classes, etc. It is maintained on a volunteer basis by Steve Zaslaw, who also handles all print communications. These include a bi-monthly newsletter and a yearly membership directory, as well as various other print materials.

The organization is governed by a board of directors which meets monthly during the academic year. President, vice-president, secretary and treasurer are elected offices, and the remaining seats are filled through appointment by the president. Among its duties the board considers all requests for new interest groups, approves the classes to be offered, and reviews the speakers chosen to address the monthly meetings. These typically are held on the third Sunday of the month between September and May.

Information for this overview has been gathered from a variety of sources and people, as well as from my own personal experience. In writing, it was inspiring to see the arc of growth and progress of Lifelong Learners, now OLLI. I hope I have made it possible for others to see what I have concluded: that this is a remarkable organization, offering an opportunity for much pleasure and greater substance in the lives of older adults in our community. Though many people have contributed to this achievement, the highlighting of some individuals is deliberate, as they have been key, in my judgment.

Nancy Mead

January 2014