PORTLAND — Members of the senior college at the University of Southern Maine are so enthusiastic about the institution that it’s grown into a vibrant, thriving community of engaged learners almost entirely by word of mouth.

“They’ll put you in a car, drive you in to get registered and introduce you to everyone. It’s wonderful,” said Janet Stebbins, chairwoman of the college’s governing board.

The college – officially the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, or OLLI – is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a variety of special events, as well as a commemorative booklet.

OLLI was the first senior college to operate in Maine and it was also the first to receive funding from the Bernard Osher Foundation, according to Assistant Director Susan Morrow.

The first classes were offered only once a week on Fridays. Two decades later, OLLI provides a swath of activities five to six days a week and has a membership of more than 2,000, Morrow said.

Along with courses that run the gamut from literature to science to philosophy, OLLI also offers a wide variety of other events, from one-day workshops and seminars to an ongoing Tuesday morning lecture series, to day trips and at least one international trip a year.

Members can also take part in an array of special-interest groups that include a book club, a bridge club, a mah-jongg club, photography, walking, skiing, science, history, wine tasting, and music. There’s even a popular and dedicated group that plays the ukulele, Morrow said.

OLLI is housed at the Wishcamper Center on USM’s Portland campus and shares space with the Muskie Institute. It is an official department of USM and is part of the university’s auxiliary services division.

“There are no tests, grades or credits; OLLI is all about the joy of learning,” Morrow said. “And our No. 1 (outreach) tool is word of mouth. All of our marketing research shows that personal invitations (drive) 90 percent of our growth.”

Stebbins said when she first moved to Maine several years ago, one of the first things people asked her was whether she knew about OLLI and had any interest in becoming involved in the senior college.

The first class Stebbins took was Soul Circling.

“That class was eye-opening, astonishing and fascinating, and cemented for me that (OLLI) is the best thing since sliced bread,” she said. “It was jaw-droppingly fabulous and led me to think, ‘I’ll be here forever, this is wonderful.'”

Since that class in 2010, Stebbins has taken a host of other courses, all taught by volunteer instructors. They include a class on climate change and, this semester, a poetry workshop.

“What OLLI’s wonderful for is that you can take a class in a subject you know nothing about and it will be a fascinating blend of people at different levels of expertise,” Stebbins said. “It’s wonderful. Sometimes I pick a course by topic, sometimes by the instructor.”

“This is truly an amazing program,” Morrow added. “This is no longer an experiment, it’s about learning, listening and expanding horizons and no day is ever the same. We (provide) a constantly growing, positive experience.”

Morrow has been one of three professional staff at OLLI for the past 17 years and said one of the things that makes the institution so strong is its founding mission.

That common purpose is to “explore new ideas, to share wisdom and insights and to form new and lasting friendships,” according to a letter of congratulation sent to OLLI by the members of the Bernard Osher Foundation board last fall.

Morrow said the other key goal of OLLI is to “be responsive to the local constituency” and to be a place that has the flexibility and ability to be different.

That goal is accomplished by strongly encouraging the instructors to “teach their passion,” which means OLLI has a retired pediatrician who teaches opera and a retired engineer who teaches cognitive thinking, she said.

“A lot of our instructors have groupies,” Morrow said, “and students will flock to the instructor no matter the topic.”

What Stebbins most appreciates, she said, is “all of our instructors are remarkably good. They’ve earned their reputation.”

OLLI was the brainchild of Rabbi Harry Sky, who had a vision for an institution that was peer-led and dedicated to encouraging seniors to continue to learn and expand the boundaries of their thinking.

Morrow said OLLI opened its doors in mid-September 1997 and has never looked back. At an initial open house 550 people showed up and 308 of them registered for classes. That was followed by 72 percent growth over the next two years.

At 10 years old, OLLI had 1,000 members, she said. At 15 it had 1,500 and now at 20 it has more than 2,000. Membership is open to anyone 50 and over and costs $25 a year, plus the course registration fees.

To help celebrate its 20th anniversary, OLLI held a gala in September, which Morrow said was “great fun” and introduced a new program called OLLIversity. Later this month an OLLI Follies variety show will be staged, featuring everything from singing and dancing to spoken word.

The variety show is free and open to the public and will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 21, in Talbot Auditorium, which is in Luther Bonney Hall on the Portland campus.

Stebbins called the OLLI membership “a group of people game for a lot of stuff. We are not a timid, shy group, we’re enthusiastic about being involved” in everything the institution has to offer, including getting up on stage.

She said participating in OLLI is like receiving a heart transplant.

“OLLI keeps you alive, focused, energized and engaged,” Stebbins said, “and there’s always an opportunity to do lots of different things.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Susan Morrow, left, and Janet Stebbins head the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Morrow is the assistant director and Stebbins is the chairwoman of the board.

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