Osher Lifelong Learning Institute celebrates 20 years at SF State

Author: Kristen Luna
April 5, 2023
A group of smiling people
Photo Credit: OLLI members celebrate with OLLI at SF State Director Kathy Bruin (third from left) at an anniversary event in March. Photo by David Elijah.

OLLI offers an array of courses, lectures and interest groups for people 50 and older

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at San Francisco State University is dedicated to helping people learn and grow as they age. And now OLLI has something in common with the people it serves: It’s still going strong even as it racks up another birthday.

In 2023, OLLI — part of a national network of institutes partly funded by the San Francisco-based Bernard Osher Foundation — is celebrating its 20th year at San Francisco State. Today OLLI provides a wide variety of in-person and online courses, free lectures series and interest groups for people aged 50 and older.

“In 2003, when we founded OLLI at SFSU, we had big goals in mind but no clear idea of how it would work out, or even if it would work out,” said businessman and philanthropist Bernard Osher. “But two decades later, I’m pleased to say that this OLLI has exceeded all of our expectations and is providing important services to a very receptive and committed audience of older adults. For me, it’s a dream come true.” 

Among the learning opportunities available during OLLI’s Spring Session, which runs through May 17, are classes on writing, the Constitution, painter John Singer Sargent, jazz history and the films of director Billy Wilder. That’s exactly the kind of eclectic mix of topics that hooked 73-year-old San Francisco State alumnus Bruce Flynn (M.S., ’85). Flynn joined OLLI as a way to meet new people after retiring from his job in human resources and risk management at UC San Francisco in 2019. Though COVID threw OLLI (and the whole world) for a loop in 2020, with classes going fully online for a time, Flynn stuck with it — and is grateful he did.

“I think my class choices became much more eclectic when taking them online,” he said. “The range of topics from OLLI was so inspiring that I felt compelled to take classes about stuff that I maybe wouldn’t have imagined taking a class on at all.”

Kathleen McIllwain (MBA, ’92), another SF State alum, feels the same way. The 61-year-old retired from the field of research and analytics at Wells Fargo at the age of 55 and has been an active OLLI member since 2020.

“I’m endlessly curious about things, so I’ve taken an incredible variety of courses, from crime scene forensics to directing in theatre to Shakespeare to a poetry class. I’m trying different things that I may not have enjoyed before,” she said. “I come away with so much out there to learn, and I’m passionate about this program because I think it’s a nice balance between small classes, meaningful instruction and good interactions. I really want other people to know about it.”

She’s taking action to get the word out, too: McIllwain eventually became an OLLI volunteer and a member of its member advisory council.

“Every individual’s experience with OLLI is unique,” said McIllwain. “What’s great about OLLI is there are so many options available to engage. It’s up to each individual to decide how quickly and deeply they want to engage with us.”

An annual OLLI membership costs just $55 year and gives participants access to activities and interest groups devoted to hiking, books, film, poetry, foreign languages and more. Six-week courses cost an additional $125 each. And there are many new opportunities to connect and learn on the way, says Kathy Bruin, OLLI at SF State’s director.

“Our 20th anniversary gives us a chance to reflect on everything OLLI has done at SF State and all we plan to do in the future,” Bruin said.

Learn more by sending a message to olli@sfsu.edu or visiting the OLLI at SF State website.

Watch a video from Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi congratulating OLLI at SF State on its 20th anniversary.