Lifelong learners thrive at OLLI program

For three decades, Rufus Browning taught political science at San Francisco State University. Now, at 80, he's a student again -- and loving it.

Browning is a member of SF State's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). Founded in 2003, SF State's OLLI has more than 500 members, a community of active people over 50 who are interested in continuing education and Bay Area exploration.

OLLI students chat just before a class on the National Galleries of Scotland taught by Maureen O'Brien (standing).

OLLI students chat just before a class on the National Galleries of Scotland taught by Maureen O'Brien (standing) held at SF State's main campus.

"People are really motivated and excited to be there, and it's so interesting to hear other perspectives in a setting where you can have open discussions with so many bright people," said Browning, a professor emeritus of political science. "It's an unusually wonderful learning situation."

Each session's six-week courses, taught by SF State professors and other local experts, run the gamut of topics. In his nine years as an OLLI member, for example, Browning has studied Greek mythology, neuroscience, Impressionist art, the representation of LGBT characters in film and more. The upcoming session, starting on April 6, includes such classes as "Surrealism in France," "Hidden History Hikes" and "A Cultural History of Robots." A course entitled "How to Hold Your Local Government Accountable" will be taught by former San Francisco Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond, and "The Golden Age of San Francisco Rock Music" will be taught by music journalist Joel Selvin, whose weekly column ran in the San Francisco Chronicle for 25 years.

"We try to make our courses relevant to what is going on in the world," said OLLI Director Sandra Halladey. Next session's "Policing in the Current Political Climate," for example, was born out of recent controversies surrounding use of force by police. Input from members also helps determine the courses on offer, Halladey added.

Some topics, like history and literature, are mainstays of the program. SF State Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts Laura Wayth will lead "Shakespeare's Comedies from an Actor's Point of View" this April, her second time teaching Shakespeare with OLLI. The class will be held on SF State's main campus, where OLLI is increasingly expanding its offerings beyond its downtown base.

She credits the small class size -- no more than 45 students -- for the robust learning environment. "I actually got to know my students because it was an interactive environment," Wayth said. "They were educated, worldly people and I learned a lot from them -- it wasn’t a one-way street."

In addition to the classroom experience, OLLI students organize and lead interest groups, discussing such themes as world affairs, music and literature. Members of a creative-writing group critique each other's work, and an adventure group visits free and low-cost Bay Area events and local institutions such as the KQED studios and City Hall, where they recently went on a behind-the-scenes tour.

"It's not just about the classes. It's about building a learning community," Halladey said.

One interest group -- the Caring Community Study Group, led by Browning -- tackles tough questions related to aging, such as how to navigate care plans or a terminal illness diagnosis. The group's members formed a strong social bond and have committed to supporting each other as they get older.

"Joining OLLI meant finding both an intellectual and social home," Browning said. "One of the most destructive things for older people is isolation. After you retire, what's going to connect you to the world? This is it -- and it's wonderful."


OLLI will host a faculty preview for Spring 2015 session two classes on Tuesday, Feb. 24, at 3 p.m. at SF State's downtown campus (835 Market St., Room 677). For more information, visit, email or call (415) 817-4243.

SF State's OLLI is one of nearly 120 such centers across the country funded with grants from the Bernard Osher Foundation.


--Beth Tagawa