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Three women taking a break from hiking by talking to a male guide.

Left to right: Eve Overby, Janet Budack, and Marion Etzwiler, all of Minnesota, stand in a Transylvanian meadow with Ruediger Steinke from Germany, who codirects the OLLI trips to Romania with Dave Johnson. The meadow marks the beginning of the tour group's hike past a string of villages built in the Middle Ages by immigrants to Romania from Saxony.

From ELI to OLLI

The U's ElderLearning Institute is now the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

By Pauline Oo

From eNews, October 27, 2005

"Spartan days and decadent nights," that's how Dave Johnson, former University of Minnesota, Morris, chancellor and current Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) member, describes his OLLI trip to Romania. In September, Johnson led a group of 20 fellow OLLIs on a two-week trek across Transylvania, the mountainous region of Romania--which has earned the nickname Draculaland thanks to the legendary Bran Castle and its Count Dracula.

"The American Heart Association would be proud of us," quips Johnson, who has also headed up several tours to Scandinavia following his retirement as Morris chancellor. Johnson and his Transylvania charges--many of whom were in their 60s--hiked between four and eight miles a day and "got our 20,000 steps in."

Johnson's trip--and the dozens of other overseas tours that OLLI offers--are much more than a two- or three-week excursion. Before leaving on a trip, participants attend six to eight weekly classes or orientation sessions to familiarize themselves with the area's history, geography, and culture (and any blood-dripping legends, of course) so that they have a richer experience in the place they visit. And during a trip, the participants attend hourlong seminars that delve into current affairs or special interest topics. For example, on Johnson's Romanian hike, OLLI members had the chance to learn more about gypsy life and the orphanages-turned-children's homes in that country.

OLLI, which calls itself "a health club for the mind," is an educational and service program for older adults in the Twin Cities metro area. Membership is $195 a year, which allows members to take two courses per session or more, if space is available. OLLI was known as the ElderLearning Institute up until last year, when it changed its name to honor its generous benefactor, Maine businessman Bernard Osher.

The institute is part of the College of Continuing Education and housed in the McNamara Alumni Center on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis. OLLI is staffed almost entirely by volunteers, and courses--none of which has a test or gives a grade--are led by volunteers who are current or retired faculty from the University of Minnesota and area colleges, community activists, or OLLI members. Courses are typically held in schools, churches, libraries, community centers, and museums across the Twin Cities metro area. This fall, OLLI members had 180 courses, trips, and activities to choose from.

"OLLI participants are typically retirement-age adults with intellectual curiosity and a love of learning," says founder and executive director Steve Benson. "Together they create an atmosphere conducive to challenging discussions and exploration--of classics and current issues, in specific fields and in the world-at-large." OLLI celebrated its 10th year in September, and it currently has about 800 members.

"One of the highlights of our [Romania] trip was the camaraderie with the group," recalls OLLI member Vern Rylander. "There was a tremendous amount of information exchange every day... [it was] a trip that mixed adventure and learning." Rylander, a U alum, joined OLLI last year "because of all the great classes my wife had gone to." His wife Lesley, who is also a University alum, has been with OLLI for nine years.

Learning doesn't stop just because you're retired or advancing in age. "It continues, and the world continues," says Rylander. "We have to stay abreast of what goes on around us."

Johnson agrees. When he's not leading OLLI trips, you can find Johnson in the OLLI classroom. "I see to it that I'm in two courses a term," says Johnson, who served as OLLI president from 2001 to 2003. "I've taken a lot of classes--everything from religious architecture in the Twin Cities to globalization to theology."

To learn more about the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, see OLLI.

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