Early Donovan Scholars participated in a radio drama at the University of Kentucky. (Photo UK Alumni)
Special to KyForward
“For almost half a century, the University of Kentucky has offered special educational opportunities for older adults as part of its outreach to the community,” observes Mike Richey, UK vice president for Development. “Thousands of seasoned learners have benefitted from hundreds of academic and nonacademic enrichment courses, and more than 50 postsecondary credentials have been conferred upon participants.
“UK’s educational initiatives for lifelong learning grew out of the vision of former UK President Herman L. Donovan. And in recent years, the nonacademic enrichment program for mature individuals at UK has been strengthened by generous gifts from the Bernard Osher Foundation,” Richey continues. “In appreciation, the enrichment program was named the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in 2007.
“Today, record numbers of participants are studying a variety of subjects and engaging in a vast array of other offerings. ‘The OLLI’ — as the institute is affectionately known by its students — is becoming an even more vital service of the university to the Commonwealth with the maturing of the baby boom generation.
“The history of lifelong learning at UK is both fascinating and inspiring. And its future offers exciting new ways for the university to accomplish its historic mission of teaching, research, outreach and service.”
Beginning with a vision
“Education is a life process, and we must not ignore intellectual development simply because of age. Retirement can be the happiest years of one’s life.”
These are the words of President Donovan. He attended a White House conference on aging in 1960 and came back to Lexington with a vision for making classes at the university available without cost to individuals age 65 and older. This vision for the intellectual development of older adults became reality in 1964 when the first senior citizens began taking academic classes for credit at the university with tuition waived. Twenty-six students, ages 65 to 84, joined 18-year-old freshman counterparts for the first time. The senior learners were known as Donovan Scholars, and all courses at the university were open to them for audit or for regular credit.
As one of the first universities to make education available to older adults without charge, UK gained national attention. In 1966, Time magazine called the program “Educare,” a reference to Medicare which was in the news at the time. The first students were from the local Lexington area, but publicity brought inquiries from every state and many foreign countries. Some senior citizens even relocated to Kentucky to enroll at the university.
By 1967, nearly 200 older students were participating in the program, and Amanda Hicks became the first Donovan Scholar to receive a degree — a Bachelor of Arts in Education.
In the late 1960s, the university began offering nonacademic courses especially designed for the talents, needs and interests of senior members of the community. These were known as enrichment courses, and art, music and writing were among the first classes taught. There were also offerings in radio drama, and longtime UK campus recreation director, Bernard M. (Skeeter) Johnson, developed an exercise course which he called “gero-fitness.”
In 1970, a weekly series of lectures and discussions was initiated and named the “Donovan Forum.” It continues to this day, and features UK deans, professors and others highlighting their work and addressing special issues of concern to older individuals.
In 1975, Alfred Arthurs became the first Donovan Scholar to earn a doctorate degree. And in 1980, the “Emeritus Corps” was created to coordinate and facilitate the volunteer efforts of senior learners to advance the local community.
Enjoying a long, rich tradition
Both the academic and nonacademic enrichment programs for older adults have continued to flourish over the decades. In response to changing patterns in retirement, the enrichment program now accepts individuals as young as age 50. Today, 1,300 intellectually vigorous members annually enroll in more than 100 enrichment courses being offered in three different communities — Lexington, Somerset and Morehead. And the academic program for older learners enrolls 100 annually.
Michael D. Smith, executive director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UK, shares, “Our students already have a lifetime of knowledge and experiences. Many have been leaders in their careers, and they bring a rich background to every class. We are also tapping the expertise of several of these individuals to help us improve the OLLI at UK through their volunteerism with us — on our advisory board, as instructors and facilitators, and in various other ways.”
(Photo from UK Alumni)
Lifelong learners are an important part of the university community. They serve in roles as mentors to graduate students, guest speakers in academic classes, and as subjects for significant research initiatives by UK faculty. They also provide an important and tangible example to the university’s younger undergraduate students.
UK President Eli Capilouto notes, “The commitment of our older adult students to learning, and the example they set for younger students on campus and among their peers, add immeasurably to the extended family of the university. Whether they explore Chinese culture, take a fresh look at foreign policy or the human brain, create watercolor paintings, practice yoga, or swim laps at the Lancaster Aquatic Center, they are showing the new generation of students what lifelong learning means.”
A typical OLLI student is retired, on a limited or fixed income, in his or her 60s or early 70s, has had some postsecondary education and has maintained an intellectual curiosity. Several students continue into their 80s and early 90s. Presently, there is a 35-year span in the ages of participants. And many individuals have been engaged in the educational program for five to 10 years.
For others, lifelong learning is a family tradition. Steve Gall is a participant in current classes and serves on the OLLI Advisory Board. His father, Sidney L. Gall, served in a similar position in the 1990s.
Sarah Hall is also a member of the OLLI Advisory Board and is the facilitator of a special interest group. She is enrolled in a course with her mother. “It’s enjoyable to take a class with my mom,” Hall confides. “She has always been interested in learning, and it’s fascinating to observe her processing new information into a lifetime of experiences.”
Growing by leaps and bounds
In the past five years, the UK lifelong learning programs have grown from 900 to 1,400 participants — an increase of over 55 percent. The growth is due in part to a larger number of Kentucky residents in the age group served, as well as greater visibility of the programs.
A low fee structure has purposely been maintained to make it relatively easy for older adults to participate in enrichment classes. Currently, an annual membership in the enrichment program is $25, and individual courses are typically $15, with a surcharge for selected courses. This fee structure is among the lowest of more than 100 similar programs nationally.
Large numbers of volunteer instructors and talented volunteer members also help keep the enrichment program affordable.
The great variety of classes and other educational opportunities offered has also contributed to record enrollments. Smith points out, “Courses are offered each semester in areas as diverse as the humanities, technology, foreign languages, studio and performing arts, and wellness and fitness. Participants can likewise join special interest groups, participate in a musical production, take day trips, attend seminars and use the university’s fitness facilities. There are no tests or homework, and our enrichment offerings are so varied that almost anyone will find something of interest.”
(Photo from UK Alumni)
The popularity of the lifelong learning enrichment courses is spread by word of mouth. “An OLLI class is more than learning something new — it’s sharing in all the experiences and knowledge each member brings into the classroom,” explains Susan R. Bottom, who is a student, a volunteer instructor and the chair of the OLLI Advisory Board. “I love the smiles on the faces — we’re all glad to be here. Curiosity, creativity and wonder exist throughout our lifetimes, and OLLI encourages and gives us opportunities to explore them all.”
The OLLI’s motto, “curiosity never retires,” is more than a slogan. Research continues to show that maintaining an active intellect in a person’s later years is related to physical and cognitive health and overall satisfaction. Lifelong learning brings enrichment to later life.
Benefitting from the generosity of others
Private philanthropy has been an important part of the history of lifelong learning at the University of Kentucky. The generosity of others has accounted for a major source of revenue that has supported the operations of the programs for senior learners down through the decades.
Soon after the advent of the first enrichment art courses in the late 1960s, the university experienced cutbacks in funding which affected the older adult educational programs. One of the participants — Marguerite G. Simpson — was convinced of the value and necessity of the programs and made annual gifts sufficient to keep them operating. She also bequeathed the bulk of her $400,000 estate in 1979 as an endowment to ensure that lifelong learning at the University of Kentucky would survive.
Programs at the university continue to benefit nearly 35 years later from her visionary philanthropy, and from other participants who followed her lead. Bernice Peo Koehnlein was an enthusiastic student for 33 semesters and a volunteer and recruiter for the programs. She bequeathed $10,000 for UK lifelong learning when she died in 2005 at age 96.
And most recently, the Bernard Osher Foundation has given substantial support to the University of Kentucky for the lifelong learning enrichment initiative. Beginning in 2006, the Osher Foundation has made operating grants totaling $250,000 and endowment gifts totaling $2 million. And the philanthropist behind the foundation — Bernard Osher — has given a personal gift of $25,000.
“We are deeply appreciative for the support of Mr. Osher and the Bernard Osher Foundation,” observes Richey. “These very significant gifts will help ensure that lifelong learning at UK will continue to thrive as we honor our promise to Kentucky in new and creative ways.” Richey continues, “These gifts also serve as a very noteworthy endorsement of UK’s educational enrichment program for older adults.”
The Bernard Osher Foundation has provided funding for similar programs at other universities in all 50 states, including 12 of UK’s 19 benchmark institutions. This generosity has resulted in a network of lifelong learning initiatives around the country offering opportunities for professional collaboration among the various member universities.
(Photo from UK Alumni)
UK’s educational enrichment program for older adults was renamed the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Kentucky in 2007. This follows the tradition of other universities receiving Osher Foundation grants. The academic course tuition waiver initiative for older learners at UK continues to be known as the Donovan Fellows program.
Smith shares, “We are grateful for the support the Osher Foundation provides. We likewise appreciate being a part of the national OLLI network.
“We are also pleased that our current OLLI members are supporting lifelong learning at UK with their personal gifts. Private philanthropy will continue to be very important to our program as the number of older adults increases.”
The OLLI at UK is a part of the College of Public Health.
Anticipating the future
Lexington is one of the five best communities in the nation for learning in retirement, according to rankings by Money magazine in 2010. This distinction is due in large part to UK’s lifelong learning offerings. Other national publications have also listed Lexington as a desirable city in which to live during retirement.
Looking ahead, UK’s lifelong learning programs can expect even more significant growth in the number of students to be served than the increases experienced in the past five years. By 2025, total membership in UK’s initiatives could grow to 2,275 because of a larger elder population. If the programs expand geographically, increase marketing, or offer new kinds of educational experiences, that number could increase still further.
The goal is for lifelong learning at UK in the next 50 years to be every bit as enriching and satisfying for future generations as it has been for generations in the last half century.
“The vision of those who created, developed and valued education for older adults in Kentucky through the decades has ensured the survival of lifelong learning at UK and made it accessible for nearly half a century. Their legacy is profound,” Richey notes.
“Future students will benefit from the innovation, hard work and philanthropy of many individuals who came before them. When we celebrate the 50th anniversary of lifelong learning at UK in 2014, great recognition will be due to those who made these treasured programs endure. And as we plan for the next 50 years of lifelong learning at the University of Kentucky, I am reminded that we indeed stand on the shoulders of giants.”
This article first appeared in the spring 2013 issue of Kentucky Alumni magazine and is reprinted with permission. Content was supplied by the UK Office of Development.