Monday December 18, 2006

Soaking Up Wisdom

The University of Dayton's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute wins another $1 million grant. Its enrollment continues to soar as the baby boomers hit the books.

Dick Beach, 76, loves to "sit and soak up the wisdom" in literature and history classes offered through the University of Dayton's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which he helped start a dozen years ago at his alma mater.

"Here is an opportunity on an attractive university campus to get into subjects that have eluded us over the years -- or that we didn't apply ourselves to years ago," said Beach, UD's former director of public relations. "It's a relaxed atmosphere, non-competitive, a sort of sit-and-soak-up the wisdom of peers or active or retired faculty members who are experts in their fields."

Beach's enthusiasm for the program is one reason why its enrollment continues to skyrocket - more than 1,450 students between the ages of 50 and 90-something enrolled in peer-led seminars last year, making it one of the most successful lifelong learning institutes in the country.

It's also why the San Francisco-based Bernard Osher Foundation has awarded it another $1 million for an endowment that will sustain its programming for older adults. UD is one of five university-based lifelong learning institutes to receive a second endowment. Other recipients include Duke University, the Osher Institutes at California State University at Sonoma, Kennesaw State University and the University of Hawaii. The foundation supports 93 university-based lifelong learning programs nationwide.

In all, UD has received $2 million for an endowment and $250,000 in grants from the Osher Foundation since 2004. The money is used for operational support, including scholarships, a shuttle service and marketing materials.

"Our institute has grown incredibly," said Julie Mitchell, assistant dean for special programs and continuing education at UD. "When we launched the institute in 1994, for many people, it was a dream deferred. Many had not gone to college and saw this as their opportunity to participate in higher education. For others, it's been the opportunity to go back to school and learn all the things they never had a chance to learn."

And without the pressure: Students don't take tests or write term papers. The teachers are volunteers and include retired professors, community leaders or anyone with a passion or expertise in a topic. The 34 seminars that will be offered during the winter term, which begins Jan. 8, range from Middle East politics and Shakespeare's plays about Henry V to lighter fare, such as tap dance taught by Sharon Leahy, artistic director of Rhythm in Shoes.

A registration fee of $80 allows students to attend an unlimited number of seminars, most of which are held in the McGinnis Center, a converted former elementary school in the middle of the student neighborhood on campus. Most classes meet once a week for either four or eight weeks.

On the curriculum front, Mitchell and a 25-member volunteer board and five advisers are brainstorming ways to meet the educational desires of the baby boomers, a growing segment of the U.S. population at an estimated 78.2 million. They're examining shorter courses, Saturday classes, more wellness topics and service-learning opportunities through UD's Fitz Center for Leadership in Community.

"This is the generation that started Habitat for Humanity. They want to continue to be involved in service," Mitchell said.

For Beach, it's all about lifelong learning. "I think when the undergraduates see us on campus, still pursuing learning, they understand you can't learn it all in four or five years, that it takes literally a lifelong process to learn and to continue to learn."

Winter classes run Jan. 8 - Feb. 19. For a brochure, call 937-229-2347. Participants can register by mail, fax at 937-229-3500 or online here. Deadline for registration is Jan. 8.

Contact Julie Mitchell at 937-229-2347 and Dick Beach at 937-435-9637.