Osher program brings adults to the Hill as part of lifelong learning mission
Published: Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 01:10
The last day to add or drop a class for students has just passed, but there are some on campus who are not anxious about their distribution requirements, upcoming midterms or large lecture classes. These particular students aren’t in their late teens or early 20s — they are senior citizens, taking part in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Tufts.
OLLI Program Director David Fechtor said that although there are about 360 members involved in the program this fall, the OLLI has seen about 70 new members this term.
Co-founded in 2000 by the Tufts Alumni Association and the School of Arts and Sciences as the Tufts Institute for Learning in Retirement, the Osher program was initially offered only to Tufts and Jackson graduates living in the area. At the core of the program was the idea that learning is a lifelong process that does not necessarily have to involve tests and quizzes; the students coming to classes were interested in participating just for the sake of learning.
“[The Osher program] is an opportunity [for its participants] to stay involved with the school and keep pursuing their academic interests in a social environment without any of the pressure of tests and grades and things like that,” Fechtor said.
In 2003, the program opened its doors to all senior citizens in the community, to those in retirement and to those approaching retirement. The program name changed in 2005 in recognition of a grant from the Bernard Osher Foundation.
Fechtor explained that the program is split up into four seasonal terms, including eight-week fall and spring terms, a four-week winter term and a two-week summer term. Between 15 and 35 courses are offered, ranging from “Rock and Roll and American Society,” to “Women in Politics,” to “Stem Cells: Promises and Pitfalls.”
Ken Fettig, who leads study groups through the program, helped found the OLLI after getting inspired by a friend’s involvement in a similar program at Boston College.
“[In the past] the only mail [that alumni would get from Tufts] was appeals for money,” he said.
Fettig hopes that with the creation of this program, alumni would get something new in the mail and choose to get involved.
On the other hand, only about 15 percent of Osher’s students are Tufts graduates, Fechtor noted.
“[Non-Tufts graduates] now feel themselves part of the Tufts family,” he said.
Going back to school is something that OLLI student Jane Eckert (J ’65) never thought she would do. But the program immediately piqued her interest when she heard about it.
“It’s an opportunity to learn things you never studied in college because you couldn’t take those tests well,” Eckert said.
First-year Osher student Clarice McDonald agreed with Eckert.
“It’s a fun way of learning something new,” McDonald said.
Although there are no tests, the students are assigned homework, such as reading or researching a topic to share with the class. The homework has not been a deterrent to participation in the program.
“Unlike a college or graduate school program, in which some people sign up for courses out of genuine interest and some because they need to fulfill graduation requirements or distribution requirements, this is a self selecting group,” Fechtor said. “The people who sign up for these classes do so because they want to, not because they have to, and they all feel pretty committed to them.”
In fact, the students are so committed that they come back year after year. Catherine Symonds, for example, is currently participating in her third year in the program. She told the Daily how impressed she has been with her peers.
“Oh — the intelligence!” she said. “[It’s not unlikely that] you’ll be sitting beside a CEO in class.”
Classes, which are held Monday through Friday on campus, meet in classrooms in the Mayer Campus Center and elsewhere, as well as on Wednesdays at Brookhaven at Lexington, a retirement community about 15 minutes from campus. The program is funded through a $50 membership fee, and courses can cost around $250 for up to 16 sessions.
At the base of the program is the concept of peer teaching. Fechtor explained that the role of a study group leader, such as Fettig, is unlike that of a traditional teacher.
“You don’t have to be an expert in an area [to be a group leader],” Fechtor said. “You just have to be enthusiastic and interested in the subject, interested enough so that you’ll be willing to spend some time researching it and then share what you’ve learned with your fellow members and moderate discussions about it. No one stands up there and lectures for two hours — that would be boring.”
The classes are supplemented with sessions led by Tufts graduate students, known as Tufts Scholars, according to Fechtor.
“[Tufts Scholars] bring younger perspectives and some vitality to the program,” he said.
This year, the Osher program saw great changes and growth due to Fechtor’s promotional work.
“In the past, we relied mostly on word-of-mouth from existing members and a mailing list from the alumni association, which let us know which grads lived in the greater Medford/Somerville area and greater Lexington area,” he said.
For the first time, Fechtor advertised in local newspapers and expanded the mailing list to people who fit certain criteria — for instance, college-educated individuals within the right age range living in certain towns.
“People were coming out of the woodwork saying, ‘I had no idea a program as exciting as this one even existed. How do I participate?’” he said.
Another step that Fechtor took in publicizing the program was the creation of the Free Thinkers series, in which four speakers gave lectures to members of the program, free of additional charge.