Early one morning, I stopped by the Woodbury Student Center on the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus, where I spotted a group of students drinking coffee.

Recognizing my colleague and fellow Egypt scholar, Kathleen Sutherland, I knew these students were from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, our senior college. I stopped by to chat.

There, John Sutherland, an OLLI student (and himself an OLLI instructor of note), sat at the table, engrossed in a book.

When I asked him what he was reading so intently at 8:15 a.m., John pointed to a Chaucer text and said quite straightforwardly that he was doing his homework for an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute class — due in only a couple of hours. He was clearly too busy to engage in idle conversation.

I certainly did not need proof of the wonderful work taking place at our senior college, but the image of this sophisticated retiree engrossed in a medieval poem struck a chord.

Through John’s example, I saw firsthand how the senior college programs capture the imaginations of those who take its classes.

These senior colleges engage the “over 50s” in genuine and stimulating learning, and they offer a special kind of camaraderie that happens only in a classroom where ideas are exchanged and learning occurs. Senior college classes offer students all the excitement and the thrill associated with the expansion of knowledge.

For all the remarkable work that goes on at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, we must credit two people.

In 1997, Rabbi Harry Sky founded USM Senior College (now known as OLLI), a program that became widely respected as the first in Maine to recognize that people never outgrow their need for learning.

The second is Bernard Osher, who turned this concept into a formidable and compelling reality on a national scale. Mr. Osher set up and financed Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes at 117 colleges and universities across the United States. These institutes touch the lives of some 98,000 people.

At USM, more than 1,400 people are enrolled in courses at OLLI; across Maine, 5,000 seniors are enrolled in 16 of these senior colleges.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is based on the premise that learning is great fun and that aging well includes staying active and continuing to challenge oneself to discover new things.

Bernard Osher, for example, started taking piano lessons at age 80. OLLI Director Kali Lightfoot started writing poetry in Betsy Sholl’s USM Poetry Workshops at 65.

USM is fortunate to be the site of the National Resource Center for OLLI, and we are privileged to have Kali Lightfoot direct the center. Kali seeks grants, oversees the publication of newsletters, publishes a peer-reviewed national academic journal and manages a network of programs across the United States.

OLLI also extends the intellectual resources of its students to USM students in collaboration with English for Speakers of Other Languages, International Programs, the Honors Program and USM writing professor Ann Dean.

OLLI at USM offers 140 courses annually, all taught by volunteers. For a modest annual fee of $25, students are eligible to take all the courses that are offered. In addition, its SAGE lecture series provides 18 talks each year by USM faculty and area community members.

I was privileged to lecture on modern Egypt to a typical Osher Lifelong Learning Institute audience, made up of retired businesspeople, diplomats, educators and professionals. Their interest in my subject and the extraordinarily informed and perceptive questions they asked were impressive.

Fascinated by American politics? OLLI offers a popular class titled “T.R., F.D.R., and the Modern Presidency,” co-taught by Draper Hunt — a popular professor emeritus of history at USM, with degrees from Harvard and Columbia universities — and John Sutherland — professor emeritus of history at Manchester (Conn.) Community College, with degrees from the University of Maine and Temple University.

Their course looks at two of America’s most charismatic presidents and considers how they shaped the office of the presidency.

Interested in art? Nathaniel “Tan” Larrabee teaches a class on “Girl with a Pearl Earring: The Art and Time of Johannes Vermeer.” Tan, a world-class artist in his own right, is a retired professor of fine arts from the Columbus (Ohio) College of Art and Design, and also has taught at Wellesley, Boston University and Northeastern.

His course explores the life and paintings of Johannes Vermeer within the context of the history and artists of the 17th century.

A number of OLLI instructors teach not what they necessarily trained in but rather what they really love. A forensic accountant teaches a great course in the history of jazz; a retired insurance executive teaches the work of classic poets.

Should you wish to take an OLLI course, call 780-4406 or go online at www.usm.maine.edu/olli.

Enter the corridors or classrooms of USM’s Wishcamper Building, where OLLI classes are held, and you will hear conversations about chess, books, the arts, the Civil War, international politics — just about anything you can imagine.

Selma Botman is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]