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USM’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Offers Something for Everyone

Wed, 10/25/2023 - 09:30am | By: Van Arnold

OLLI Director

Paula Mathis, OLLI Director

“Bright, creative, energetic, and just plain fun to be around.” Such are the descriptions Paula Mathis uses to characterize members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM).

Mathis has served as OLLI Director for the past five years after working in the USM Honors College for nearly 20 years. Saying Mathis enjoys her job is a little like saying Taylor Swift enjoys touring. Her favorite slogan these days encapsulates the affection Mathis feels for the unique organization: “Good Golly, What’s OLLI?!

“I wish I could claim credit for it, but that goes to OLLI member-volunteer Jim Siders,” said Mathis. “OLLI is an extraordinary, thriving community of lifelong learners. Members are active adults who share a love of learning. They treasure innovative and enriching programs at affordable prices in an inclusive environment with others who share their wide-ranging interests.”

The USM OLLI is one of 125 across the country and remains the only lifelong learning institute in Mississippi supported by The Bernard Osher Foundation. Mathis points out that OLLI is member-led, member-driven with an advisory board and standing committees enabling members to participate fully in the organization and provide direction to the institute. 

Mathis beams when explaining the subtle benefits of OLLI membership. “OLLI members learn for the sheer joy of learning – no tests or grades,” she said. “It provides opportunities for members to learn, exercise, travel, develop meaningful friendships, discover new interests and passions, and much more.”

OLLI’s origin at USM can be traced to early 1991 when Sue Pace, then Director of Continuing Education, submitted a formal concept paper to then-President Aubrey K. Lucas proposing the formation of an Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR). Pace was aware of an ILR movement around the nation, with its community-based programs. She felt strongly that such an institute could be developed within the Hattiesburg community in partnership with USM.

Approximately 130 people attended an organizational meeting in May 1991 to establish the Institute for Learning in Retirement. Beginning in fall 2005, the Bernard Osher Foundation provided the institute with $100,000 annually, through 2007. At this point, the ILR became the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

After meeting requirements of the Osher Foundation, OLLI was awarded a $1 million endowment and an additional $50,000 bridge grant to provide support until earnings from the endowment became available. In January 2015, OLLI expanded its outreach and implemented a second institute on USM’s Gulf Park campus in Long Beach, Miss.

Once upon a time, OLLI billed itself as a continuing education program for adults 50-and-older. Though some literature still exists with that parameter, Mathis insists the age factor is not really a factor at all.

“In the past I would have called OLLI a thriving community of lifelong learners in the 50-plus age group,” said Mathis. “However, we don’t card folks who want to join, and we don’t discriminate. We won’t tell if you’re not yet 50.”

The USM OLLI staff includes Mathis and two program coordinators – Tay Baucum in Hattiesburg and Maryann Herodes in Long Beach. OLLI member-volunteers help to power the organization.

The current combined membership from both campuses is approximately 715. Courses are offered in a variety of subjects, including: Arts, Health and Fitness, Humanities, Language and Literature, Personal Enrichment, Nature, Science and Technology to name a few.

Mathis and her team rely on USM faculty and staff to assist with course instruction as well as many Honors College graduates who seize the opportunity to give back to the University. Current OLLI members also teach classes.

“The number of Southern Miss faculty and staff who teach at OLLI is most encouraging,” said Mathis. “It demonstrates their commitment to community engagement and lifelong learning. The support of the Southern Miss administration, faculty, and staff means a great deal to us.”

The OLLI experience is not just relegated to classrooms, power points presentations and exercise classes. Each fall the institute offers a domestic travel opportunity, followed by an international adventure every spring. Approximately 30 members (maximum capacity) have signed up for a cruise to Belgium and Holland scheduled for spring 2024.

OLLI classes and related programming are held at the Peck House, a stately mid-20th Century home located at the corner of Pearl Street and 37th Avenue in Hattiesburg. Built by oil exploration and distribution entrepreneur Carl Peck, the house boasts Italian marble, art deco fixtures, Waverly wallpaper and what is believed to be the first electric garage door in the southeastern United States. The Peck family donated the home and grounds to the University in 1989.

Hattiesburg resident Gwen Mason became an OLLI member three years ago when her sister retired and moved to the area.

“We saw OLLI as the perfect vehicle to cruise life’s learning highway at our own pace and explore different areas of interest,” said Mason. “The opportunities to interact with other active adults in fun, friendly, and intellectually stimulating environments are what I most like about OLLI and its offerings.”

Mason counts among her more memorable OLLI experiences:

  • “Mobile Street History,” a five-week class led by Deborah Delgado outlining the history of Mobile Street during its heyday, including prominent trailblazers, the thoroughfare’s demise and efforts to restore the area.
  • “When Evil Lived in Laurel,” a book written by Curtis Wilkie with a review/presentation by local businessman Mike Landrum. The book provides an account of the murder of Vernon Dahmer along with related Civil Rights activity in Mississippi.
  • Trips to New Orleans for the “Van Gogh Immersive Experience,” to the Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson, and to Mohawk Steel and Glass Blowing in the Oak Grove community.

No one need try to sell Dallas Gorbett on the rewards from OLLI participation. A member for nearly 14 years, Gorbett strayed outside his comfort zone to give OLLI a try.

“I am not naturally a ‘joiner,’ but joining OLLI is the best thing I’ve done,” said Gorbett. “The classes are great. The trips are stress-free. But the best part – which wasn’t on my radar when I joined – is the feeling of community, both inside and outside the Peck House. You see friends at non-OLLI events, and it makes that event even better.”

Dr. Doug Masterson, Senior Associate Provost and Professor of Institutional Effectiveness at USM, gives immense credit to Mathis for the institute’s continuing growth and popularity.

“I have known Paula for many years, and I know for a fact you won’t find anyone more passionate about their work,” said Masterson. “She has worked to bring OLLI to the forefront of our community service efforts and has built a strong membership base for OLLI.”

He added, “USM and our community are very fortunate to have the only OLLI in the State of Mississippi. OLLI is a true gem and provides numerous opportunities for USM faculty and staff to interface with our community neighbors and friends and contribute to their lifelong learning interests.”

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, OLLI began offering online learning opportunities for members in the summer of that year. Today, many classes are delivered via Zoom, which has allowed the institute to extend its reach throughout Mississippi to residents who live in rural parts of the state with limited access to OLLI’s programming. Mathis said plans call for expansion of online programming as well as more in-person classes throughout the state.

OLLI is more than a location; more than a place for older adults to congregate; more than a concept. OLLI brings the idea of healthy, successful aging to life.

“Whether a budding artist, a two-left-feet dancer, a lover of books, puzzles, games, food, music, or a well-heeled traveler, OLLI has something for everyone to make continued learning fun,” said Mason.

“Good Golly, OLLI!” Indeed.