College students and senior citizens often face a similar question: What’s my purpose in life?
UNLV’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute helps the latter group find the answer.
The institute, also known as OLLI, helps its participants transition from their working years to a time of greater leisure in their senior years by providing courses that challenge and stimulate their minds. The program has kept participants connected through the pandemic through videoconferencing and online course offerings along with limited in-person classes held in accordance with strict CDC guidelines.
"Our population is at particular risk to the virus but also at particular risk to social isolation during the pandemic," noted OLLI Director Rob Levrant. "Thankfully, our program managers Toniann DeSousa and Morgan Osburn have spent countless hours bringing our program online and helping our members, many in their 80s and 90s, navigate this new environment."
Levrant considers himself a kindred spirit to those he serves.
“I’m a lifelong learner, just like those I serve,” Levrant said. “As an educational psychologist, I remember learning that retirement, often called 'the third age,' is a time to look back on a life well lived or a life of regret. I disagree. We need to continue to grow, learn, explore, and serve our community.”
Levrant notes that there are 124 Osher institutes across the nation, and all share a common mission identified on the National Resource Center for Osher Institute’s website: “To develop the mind and spirit for a lifetime of purpose and human flourishing.”
“We offer everything from math and science to fine arts and cinema to history and current events to art appreciation to finance and economics,” Levrant said. “Our current events classes are among the most popular.”
He believes the variety of courses offered reflect the participants’ backgrounds, as they come from near and far and bring wide-ranging experiences. An added appeal of the institute is that grades and tests are not employed in the classes.
Levrant wants the OLLI participants — and all senior adults — to know they’re still vital to the community.
“Our older adults come from all backgrounds, walks of life, heritages, socio-economic levels, etc.,” Levrant said. “This goes far beyond our city. They are the ones who built the world we have and if not for them, we would have it a lot worse without their contributions. We need to make sure that they know how vitally important they are, and how important their role in society remains.”
Levrant himself has been a part of the Las Vegas community for many years, and his commitment to building it is what made him a great match for his current role.
For 10 years, he served as a neighborhood outreach specialist and planner for the city of Las Vegas. During that time, he discovered that many people just crave understanding.
“Understanding each other’s point of view is the key,” Levrant said. “Neighborhood outreach is first and foremost community education – teaching the members of our community what our community is all about. And to teach that, I had to learn from the community I served. It’s the cycle of lifelong learning at work.”
Levrant envisions the institute’s members not just focusing on educational aspects of the courses offered, but also on their participation and growth in a learning community.
As a member of UNLV’s Community Engagement Council, Levrant seeks to advance the university’s connections to the community through his work. He believes encouraging participation in OLLI is one of many ways the university achieves its community partnership mission.
Before the pandemic, he and his team also encouraged and helped organize volunteer events for the OLLI participants, who often seem to enjoy them as much as the classes. Levrant and his team also engage participants as instructors, employing their skills from their previous vocations and current or past hobbies.
His team at OLLI help lead the way. “Our program manager for learning community has been working with us for several years and knows our program and its members well,” Levrant said. “Our program manager for educational programming built a successful lifelong learning program in the southeastern United States. By leveraging our three skill sets, along with a lot of member input, we are able to broaden our class offerings and give even more of our members the opportunity – and the support – to become instructors of our peer-led classes
He said they also seek to create new opportunities for members to find themselves in vital roles in the community.
As for the future of the institute, Levrant hopes that as the number of members grow, it’s possible that on- or near-campus housing for OLLI’s members could be developed. He notes that other universities across the country feature university-based retirement communities to provide greater access and connection to this population.
The addition of housing would add another component to the sense of community he hopes to engender through the program.