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They're Just Getting Warmed Up

UNLV program offers local seniors the learning opportunity of a lifetime — and the program is ready for another growth spurt.

Business & Community  |  Mar 24, 2017  |  By UNLV News Center
Silhouette of senior students attending a class

Classes through UNLV's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute offer senior citizens a variety of non-credit academic learning classes. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Editor's Note: 

This story, by UNLV junior Jeniffer Solis, originally was published on the UNLV Greenspun School of Journalism website Rebelfolio.  As a Las Vegas native, Solis is passionate about uncovering the hidden of stories of the valley.

College students trickle into class through handicapped-accessible doors. The instructor makes the announcement from a microphone: one student won’t be attending class because her puppy fell off the couch and hurt itself. And then the class begins its discussion on current events while the instructor walks around the room, giving a microphone to students who want to contribute to the discussion.

The major difference between this college class and the average one is the age of the students: “Our students," says Robert Levrant, "are typically 60 to 80 years old."

Levrant is director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UNLV, a peer-led learning community of retired and semi-retired adults headquartered at UNLV's Paradise campus. OLLI is a nationwide organization designed to support seniors who have a desire to pursue knowledge in a university setting.  

“When you retire, there are a lot of opportunities to be entertained,” Levrant says. “But there aren't a lot of opportunities to exercise your mind.”

With the support of UNLV, OLLI offers a variety of non-credit academic learning classes for senior citizens. The classes are formatted in study groups where group leaders, known as “coordinators,” volunteer to teach a subject they have experience in.

Marcia W. Johnson, a retired federal prosecutor, is going into her third year as a member of OLLI.  She regularly attends a class called “Watercolors: Flowers.”

“It’s been a real lifesaver,” says Johnson, painting flowers in cade yellow and alizarin crimson, a bowl of water tinted pink with paint beside her. “OLLI was the answer to a prayer.”

After retiring four years ago, Johnson says she was very uneasy about transitioning from working full time and having a demanding life to finding something that could bring her joy other than the practice of law. “My biggest concern when facing retirement was figuring out who I am when I’m no longer a prosecutor because I didn’t have a clue,” she says. “It was my life.”

After she relocated from Cleveland, Ohio, to Las Vegas, her husband passed away. Johnson was left with a lot of uncertainty and isolation. OLLI gave her a support system — and a place in her adopted city that felt like home.

“The Making of Classic Films” is a class led by coordinator Kevin Fahey. Fahey passes out copies of Vanity Fairand starts a discussion on the emotional appeal of the film E.T. “The alien asks the little boy to join him on the spaceship back to his planet,” Fahey says. “You’re moved because you think, this is a story that shouldn’t end and he should stay there on Earth. But of course he can’t.”

The film is projected on three screens along the same wall, the sound spreads through speakers that reach all the way to the back. Sections of the class watch different screens. Every class is outfitted with smart technology designed to serve senior citizens with vision and hearing impairments. The students take a short break an hour into class and walk outside to stretch their legs.

OLLI offers more than 80 study groups throughout the semester and has over 1,500 students registered. Classes range from economics to fine arts, from mathematics to literature, from geology to genealogy, and from “Star Trek101” to foreign languages.

Barbara Snell, a 71-year-old semi-retired student, says OLLI has made it easy to take classes different from her usual interests. She is currently taking a class on Judaism taught by Rabbi Tzvi Bronchtain, the co-director of the Chabad Jewish Center at UNLV. Snell says she’s learned a lot. “This is the kind of thing I like to do,” she says. “I go in not knowing a thing about it and then come away saying: that’s cool.”

“And there’s no homework,” says Snell, chuckling.

In another class, students crowd into a hot room to line dance. The class is taught by Dawn McCaffrey. After a lifetime of dancing she began teaching seniors at OLLI. McCaffrey seeks to challenge the memory and coordination of her students with dancing. The students practice dance moves before McCaffrey ever plays the music. Once “Let’s fall to Pieces Together,” by George Strait starts playing from a boombox in the center of the room, the students take their positions.

“Over two, three, over two, three,” McCaffrey chants as the students shuffle along, carefully watching their moves along the mirrored wall.

For a photography class, instructors organized a field trip to the Valley of Fire, showing student work up on screen following a discussion on what to crop from the photos and how to find the focus of the frame. The class claps throughout the rotation of pictures.

“All the classes are designed to be interactive,” says OLLI Board President Catherine Lowe. “The classes are very engaging so you feel good being there.”

In January 1991, 70 retirees from Las Vegas and Henderson joined to form The Extended Study Center for Lifelong Learning, which later joined the Osher Foundation’s Learning Institute to form UNLV’s OLLI program. 

Study groups were once held on the main campus at UNLV and were generally small. As the program grew to more than 1,500 members, OLLI was moved to the Educational Outreach building on Tropicana and Swenson . The campus building was constructed in 1956 as an elementary school. The restrooms in the building still say boys and girls on the doors.

“That’s kind of a joke amongst us,” says OLLI Financial Officer John Macdonald.

Macdonald and Lowe are married and both work on the OLLI board. Along with working on the board, Macdonald teaches “Nevada History” and Lowe teaches “How the Crusades Changed History,” often attending each other's classes. They moved to Las Vegas for retirement, hanging a neon light flamingo over their refrigerator to remind themselves of their new home.

As the program grew, space became an issue. Satellite campuses have been opened in retirement communities such as Las Ventanas, Merrill Gardens and Aliante to accommodate more students. In the last five years alone the program has grown by almost 500 students. Levrant says he wants to expand to 25 satellite campuses within the next two years. Levrant and Lowe know that growth means work — a lot of it. But they don’t seem to mind.

“I love to be in the thick of things, always have!” Lowe says. “It’s a lot of fun, and you get so many rewards out of teaching.” She recalls a student who would bring flowers every week. 

For now, many of the satellite campuses are in middle class or upper middle class retirement communities around the perimeter of the city. Levrant says the next step in the program is to move classes to areas where people don’t move to retire, but where they have lived all their adult lives. If OLLI can add programs at sites such as the East Las Vegas Community Center and Doolittle Community Center in West Las Vegas, Levrant says, it could create more opportunities for African-American and Latino communities.

“In other words this isn’t just for white people,” he says. “We need to get that message out there. This is the second-most ethnically diverse university in the country and the OLLI group does not match that and why doesn’t it and what are we doing wrong.”

With the support of UNLV and a $2 million endowment from the Osher Foundation, Levrant hopes to set up the resources for people in these communities to form their own classes. OLLI recently opened a satellite campus at The Center, a LGBTQ community center in downtown Las Vegas. Levrant says teaching there will help the program reach an underserved demographic.

UNLV’s OLLI is the only one in the nation trying to increase diversity by reaching out to isolated communities.

“We’re reaching a lot of them,” Levrant says. “But there are more to reach.”