Never Stop Learning at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) in Asheville.This isn’t your grandparent’s retirement.

“There is so much more to retirement these days,” Catherine Frank said. “The idea of just golf and leisure is becoming less and less the way people want to spend their retirement.”

Sitting at her desk at the Reuters Center on the University of North Carolina at Asheville campus, Frank lights up when asked about the purpose of this building.

“These are people who want to keep learning and keep using their skills, who want to give back to the community and also understand what the community is all about,” she said.

Frank is the executive director of the center, which is home to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). The center specializes in dozens of programs that aim at providing ongoing academic knowledge and cultural experience for those seniors who live and thrive in Western North Carolina.

“All of our OLLI members are so inspiring,” Frank said. “This program completely changes the possibilities that are [available] at this stage of life.”

Originally the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement, OLLI is “dedicated to promoting lifelong learning, leadership, community service, and research.” Founded in 1988 by former UNC Asheville Chancellor David Brown, the institute was looked at as a way to connect Asheville and greater Western North Carolina by bringing together the influx of retirees to the area.

“David wanted to set UNC Asheville apart from other schools, with OLLI being a big part of that,” Frank said. “He could see the popularity of Asheville when it came to retirees relocating to Western North Carolina, and he wanted to find ways to immerse them into the community through classes, seminars, and volunteer service.”

What started out as 150 students has now grown to over 2,300 active participants each year. Of that, there are over 450 member volunteers who run the gamut of service, putting together and instructing classes, serving on committees, organizing research projects, and mentoring and consulting others within the UNC Asheville student body.

“Other lifelong learning centers may offer courses, but few places like ours actually offer open discussions between members about things like financial planning, learning how to use technology, or health and wellness,” Frank said. “It’s about answering those questions they have as to ‘How am I going to fill my time?’ and ‘What is my identity after I’m no longer working?’”

“Every experience here is a learning opportunity.” —Catherine Frank, Reuters Center executive director

Programs at OLLI cover an endless variety of topics and subjects, all of which change with each impending season. Browsing the immense course catalog, one might come across Appalachian mountain music, yoga, Renaissance art, Shakespeare, crafts, Tai Chi, jazz piano, or “How to use your iPad,” to name a few. The programs hone in on the ideals set long ago by OLLI, whose focus on course structure revolves around the arts and humanities, the natural world, civic engagement, wellness, life transition and retirement relocation planning, intergenerational co-learning, and research on trends in the reinvention of retirement.

“When retirement was invented over a century ago, the idea of resting after age 65 was a good idea. But, as we’ve gone along and added more years to our life spans, we haven’t necessarily added structure that would add meaning to those years,” Frank said. “The idea of a 30-year vacation is probably not what someone wants these days. With our members, they want to take their talents and experiences acquired in life and make that transition to use them in different ways in their later years.”

Students at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) in Asheville.And the Reuters Center itself has also found stability in what it hopes to achieve in the future as the programs ages and evolves. Alongside a $2 million endowment from the OLLI national organization when it joined the network in 2012, the UNC Asheville chapter also received a $1 million endowment from the Janirve Foundation, which was used to help construct the 20,000- square-foot center and add courses to its programming.

“Having this building has really helped us stand alone compared to other lifelong learning programs around the country that are struggling to find space and funds to fit their needs,” Frank said.

Frank noted how even she has found encouragement and motivation from OLLI and its members when pondering her own retirement down the line. The influence of the members on greater Asheville extends well beyond the classroom and city limits, where wisdom and community involvement are at the forefront of what makes this region so unique and special.

“Every experience here is a learning opportunity,” Frank said. “All of our members and volunteers want to be here, bright and ready to help. It’s very personal for everyone here, and a great reminder of not only how incredible this area is, but also how much fun life can be—no matter what age you are.”


This post is adapted from our annual Welcome to Western North Carolina magazine. Click here to read more online, or click here to order your own free copy.



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