We are fortunate to be situated firmly at the intersection of the university’s tripartite mission to enhance education, research, and outreach. Our courses, lectures, and other educational activities give us the opportunity to learn from some of the leading scholars in a wide variety of fields; the campus’ programs that support research endeavors are generous in making those resources available to our members; and, as a program that brings together members from both university and non- university backgrounds, we are both a symbol of the university’s outreach, and a model for how outreach can be leveraged for multiple and reciprocal benefits.
This openness to new friends and partners is a significant part of what we do – and it’s a campuswide phenomenon that lives in the many centers and programs devoted to exploring new avenues for traveling across departmental borders and bringing new voices into the conversation. It’s a tradition that is best exemplified by our “mascot,” the Alma Mater, who welcomes people to campus with outstretched arms. Even the Quad at the heart of campus is marked by intersecting pathways. So partnerships are a natural and integral part of our campus culture – and reaching out to others is a big part of what we do at OLLI.
Many of our partners have been generous in providing services and benefits for our members – things that extend and enhance the member experience by creating additional opportunities. One of our most valuable partners is the University Library – with more than 24 million holdings, it is the second largest academic library in the country, and the third-largest overall (just behind the Library of Congress and Harvard University). Each OLLI member receives full access to the library and its resources, from books to extensive electronic holdings such as thousands of newspapers, magazines, journals, and digitized materials which can be read online. The Library staff organizes special informational sessions for our members to acquaint them with all of the services available to them; and also coordinates short courses and lectures especially for our members, focusing on specialized aspects of their collections – from the Sousa Archives and Law Library to the world-renowned Rare Book and Manuscript Library (which recently offered sessions on Italian Renaissance art and the personal diaries of one of the original “Monuments Men”).
The Department of Kinesiology and Community Health offers several programs that are oriented toward an over-50 audience – especially their Senior Fitness Program, a multifaceted, personalized exercise program that is executed by scholars who have done extensive research on wellness and fitness for senior populations. The program conducts periodic workshops for our members, and offers a 20% discount for those who wish to enroll in the program.
Partnerships with outreach programs allow our members to participate in the university’s Day of Service; last year, more than 40 of our members volunteered on a project to package 165,000 healthy, easy-to-prepare meals for the local food bank (1000 meals for every year the university has been in existence!). Other outreach programs include mentorship programs that allow our members to serve as one-on-one mentors for Illinois freshmen who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and represent the first members of their family to attend college; and a program that pairs our members with business men and women from China who are part of a yearlong program to study Western business practices – for language practice and social engagement.
We take our programs into other areas of the community, as well, through lectures and collaborative events at senior residential centers in town, local libraries, and, starting soon, discussions after select films at our local art theater. We have established a relationship with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony that included us in the process of interviewing their top four candidates for the position of conductor, and which now gives us exclusive previews (by the conductor and their guest artists) of each of their major performances.
A few weeks ago, we embarked upon a new partnership with the world-renowned Mark Morris Dance Group, which has built a productive relationship with the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on campus – and which not only performs at Illinois each spring, but spends one week in residence, conducting outreach and arts programs at a variety of locations. This year, we were a part of that residence – and, for one afternoon, we became the Osher Lifelong Dancing Institute! The Mark Morris Dance Group’s managing director and two of the dancers from the company came to OLLI for a workshop that introduced our members to the intricacies of putting together a dance program.
After a short presentation and discussion, they led us through some warm-up exercises – and then taught us a complex sequence of steps that would be featured in their performance the next evening. More than 50 of our members, ranging in age from 51 to 95, participated in this choreographic wonder, accompanied by a New York- based percussionist who was in town for a different performance at the campus art museum and who, upon hearing about the event at OLLI, offered to join the fun. The professional dancers were so impressed with the eagerness and skill our members demonstrated that they asked us, then and there, if we would be a part of their residency activities next March!
One of our most innovative partnerships is the Citizen Scientist initiative – among the first of its kind, and a model for lifelong learning that also capitalizes on our students’ inquisitiveness and the campus’ strengths in the sciences – especially the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, and the Institute for Genomic Biology. (These are ideal partners, because both of them embrace interdisciplinary exchange and creativity in research – the Institute for Genomic Biology, which was established in 2006, was built with an open floor plan that encourages researchers to look around and see what their colleagues are up to, rather than enclosed labs that would keep the crop scientists separate from the astrobiologists.)
In the Citizen Scientist Program, established in 2011, OLLI volunteers work in labs across campus – most of them have no background in science, and many of them had no prior affiliation with the university. They serve, not as research subjects, but as volunteer scholars in the labs. They assist in working with human and animal subjects in research projects, administering questionnaires and creating data-entry systems, and other projects (including cutting-edge technology) that introduce them to new worlds. One of our members, a retired biochemist, is a fully-integrated member of his lab – making DNA for testing, attending lab meetings, and presenting papers on his work at symposia and seminars.
The values for our members and the researchers in the labs are mutual, and enhanced by intergenerational contact. Participating labs are encouraged to involve volunteers in lab meetings, lecture series, and other activities; and a graduate student in each lab is assigned as a mentor to the OLLI volunteer, which helps to orient our volunteers and gives the mentor valuable supervisory experience. The labs benefit from the volunteer work of older adults who bring their own life experiences to the project. Having OLLI scholars in the labs teaches undergraduate and graduate students to talk about their work to educated non-specialists. At its best, the Citizen Scientist Program demonstrates the value of our members in high-level research enterprise that contributes to the production of new knowledge. And our members develop a sense of accomplishment even beyond their other personal and professional achievements, because they are making important contributions in areas they may never have expected to find themselves in.
As the word of this initiative continues to spread across campus, even more scientists want OLLI volunteers in their labs: in the past three months, we have doubled the size of the program, and now have more than 30 volunteers working in approximately 20 labs. With this growth, we are working to expand in two new ways: offering OLLI volunteers as individual research assistants (for those scholars, especially in the social sciences and humanities, who don’t do lab-based research)...and a companion Citizen Artist Program, where our members will volunteer in the university’s art museum, helping to install exhibitions and catalog artworks; work in costume and scene shops at the performing arts center; and serve as research assistants for faculty projects in arts- related disciplines.
There has been a significant shift in the requirements of many federal grant-making organizations and other funding sources – which ask applicants to incorporate an outreach component into their proposals, to demonstrate the real-world benefits of the research that is being undertaken. Several of those scholars have invited us to become partners in their grant proposals. One of those projects, a study of the origins of life in the universe, has already received funding from NASA; other proposals, including one that would establish a center for learning and aging on campus, are still pending. The benefits of such a partnership are numerous: new OLLI instructors and courses based on the research project; increased connections to the campus and opportunities for lectures, travel, and in-depth tours of the research facilities; in some cases, a bit of additional funding is available to support these and other new initiatives.
Our newest project is one that engages beyond our own campus and community – a partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities that builds upon the books, films, and other educational materials that the NEH produces each year, with the potential for being rich additions to the programs that we offer. The NEH mission – which states that “democracy demands wisdom” - includes continuing education and lifelong learning as one of its platforms. The materials they produce are intended for a broad audience, and OLLI programs (ours, and perhaps some of yours, too) are natural and congenial constituencies for this kind of outreach at the local levels.
We have held introductory meetings for our volunteer leadership and community partners (especially libraries), and formed a working consortium of members – the first steps toward a partnership between OLLI and the NEH that will allow us to draw on existing resources and leverage them for greater benefits for all of the partners. Many of those projects are available in digital formats or in university and community libraries, and many of them are also accompanied by detailed teaching materials. They are free and public. They include films, books, and other materials on such topics as the history of the Civil Rights movement, the development of American popular music, and Muslim journeys in the contemporary world.
Most of these materials can be found online at www.neh.gov – and the Office of Public Programs (http://www.neh.gov/divisions/public) can provide additional information about incorporating these resources into your own programs. www.neh.govhttp://www.neh.gov/divisions/public
OLLI offers a vibrant, engaged community of members who have much to offer – and who are eager to explore new opportunities for getting involved, as well. The more opportunities they have to connect to each other and the broader community around them (the campus and all of its vast resources, the community that supports and is served by the university), the more connected they will be. They more connected they are, the more investment they will continue to have as productive, engaged scholars and citizens. OLLI members serve an important function as ambassadors in both directions – bringing so much to their work on campus projects, and taking so much away, too. The presence of an active lifelong learning program – and the enthusiastic local commitments to supporting it – is an investment in building bridges that span generations, professional worlds, and personal spheres.
Thank you! I am happy to answer any questions or share additional information about the collaborations and partnerships described here. Please contact me at: Christine Catanzarite firstname.lastname@example.org (217) 244-9141
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