About OLLI at AU:
Where Curiosity Never Retires
The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at American University (OLLI at AU) is an association of, by, and for the people in the Washington, DC, area who wish to continue to study and learn.
OLLI at AU is dedicated to the proposition that learning is a lifelong process and that curiosity never retires.
What makes us unique is that the basic concept is that of peer learning and teaching. Members come from varied backgrounds, and what they have in common is genuine interest in continuing their learning experiences and intellectual stimulation in an organization of like-minded people. Members participate fully in study groups, either by leading them or attending them. There are no tests and no grades; members participate purely for the joy of learning. The goal is a high quality learning experience accessible to all.
OLLI has three types of academic programming:
- Fall Semester (Sept-Nov) and Spring Semester (Mar-May): Study groups meet once a week for 8-10 weeks
- February Shorts and July Shorts: Study groups meet 2-5 times over the course of one week
- June Minis: Study groups meet once a week for 4 weeks
Study groups, Minis, and Shorts meet for 90 minutes during one of three time frames: 9:45-11:15 a.m., 11:45 a.m.-1:15 p.m., or 1:45-3:15 p.m. Class sizes range from 120 in lecture format to 10 in small discussion groups. For a membership fee, participants may take up to 3 study groups.
In addition to study groups, OLLI at AU has a Friday Lecture Series during each semester, and extended lecture series in January and May.
Membership in OLLI at AU provides an opportunity for social interaction, new friendships, and collegiality. Activities are planned and operated by members. As a democratic membership organization, OLLI at AU depends on the volunteer services of its members. Volunteering brings involvement in the Institute in meaningful, satisfying ways. Members are strongly encouraged to participate in one or more of the following ways:
The Board and its various committees develop and implement policies, procedures, and activities designed to enhance the overall program.
Study Group Leaders are members with special expertise or interests who wish to share these with other members by designing and leading study groups.
Study Group Representatives provide liaison between their study group and the OLLI at AU administration. They facilitate member participation, make announcements, and assist Study Group Leaders.
OLLI at AU is an independent, nonprofit organization 501(c)(3) incorporated in Washington, DC, located at American University (AU), and is part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute National Network, which now includes 123 Institutes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. OLLI at AU leases space from AU for its administrative offices. Members are eligible to use the university library, computers, parking, Metro shuttle service, campus store, dining facilities, and to join the Jacobs Fitness Center at a reduced rate.
Study groups and educational activities take place at 4801 Massachusetts Ave. NW. See map.
SUPPORT OF OLLI AT AU
Membership fees — $300 per semester or $550 for the fall and spring semesters — support the program. OLLI at AU is further supported by an endowment from the Osher Foundation given to and managed by American University. OLLI at AU receives a percentage of the interest from the endowment annually.
The Friends of OLLI Fund, established by the Board of Directors, is for future space needs. We welcome donations to OLLI at AU at any time. OLLI at AU is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation.
In 1980, there were no lifelong learning programs in Washington, DC. In fact, there were only three in the nation: one in California, one in New York City at The New School, and Duke University’s program for retired executives. Three local soon-to-be retirees put together a proposal and an organizational outline to create a volunteer membership organization with intellectually stimulating, peer-led study groups that also encouraged a sense of community with the opportunity to make new friends.
The proposal was presented to George Washington University, but they could not decide whether the program belonged in Education or Continuing Education. Through a happy coincidence, they were able to make a connection with Dr. Richard Berendzen (then President of American University). Very soon afterward, they were assigned a dean with whom to work, staff, and space in Nebraska Hall. They held focus groups in their homes to assess interest in their plans and contacted friends, faculty members, and professionals who might be interested in teaching a course. They formed a board whose members included Tina Fried Heller, Carolyn Alper, Sylvia and AI Brown, and Katherine Donovan, and they chose a temporary name, The Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR).
ILR started with 11 peer-led study groups and 80 members in the fall of 1982. Over time, ILR grew in both the number of study groups and members. At the same time, AU was growing and, thus, no longer had the space to accommodate ILR. In 1989, ILR became a 501(c)(3) and began leasing space from the Temple Baptist Church (next to the main campus), where it remained for many years. Eventually, classes were added at other locations—AU’s Katzen Arts Center, River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation, and St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral—to accommodate growth.
In 2001, Bernard Osher, a respected businessman, community leader, and philanthropist, visited the small senior learning program at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. He was seized with the notion that such a program was what "seasoned learners" (over the age of 50) needed to help keep their brains engaged and agile. He soon began to provide financial support to existing programs and start-ups, with a goal of establishing an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in each of the 50 states. In 2005, the Osher Foundation of San Francisco approached ILR regarding whether the Institute wanted to join the growing network of Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes around the country.
The fiercely independent and autonomous ILR had a decision to make. Members were concerned about the changes that would be required (including the name change) by affiliating with another program. In 2006, after discussing the issue thoroughly, as well as realizing that their independence would not be jeopardized, ILR officially became the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at American University (OLLI at AU).
After two years and a $200,000 gift from the Osher Foundation, in 2008, OLLI at AU’s membership passed 500 individuals making it eligible for a $1 million-dollar endowment. Given to American University for OLLI's benefit, OLLI at AU receives a 5% payout each year. When membership passed 1,000 in 2014, OLLI at AU became eligible for a second million-dollar endowment. This gift was contingent on obtaining a long-term lease with AU for "permanent" space on campus. After lengthy negotiations, a 10-year lease was signed in 2016 and the second million dollars was given to AU for OLLI's benefit.
In the summer of 2016, OLLI at AU moved into American University’s Spring Valley Building. OLLI at AU was once again under one roof, in newly renovated, accessible classrooms with current A/V equipment. In 2018 and 2019, OLLI had hearing loops installed in all of its classrooms. This state-of-the-art technology allows members with hearing loss to hear study group leaders and class members clearly, addressing a critical need for many OLLI members.
In the 2017-2018 academic year, OLLI at AU offered 90-plus classes each semester, plus 20 February Shorts (3-, 4-, and 5-day classes), 24 June Minis (once a week for four weeks), and 27 lectures by nationally renowned individuals. More than 1,350 unique members participated in these offerings. In addition to members who serve as Study Group Leaders, faculty from AU’s School of International Service, School of Public Affairs, and College of Arts and Sciences present faculty series. The current 2018-2019 academic year has seen the addition of a book group, publication of our first annual report, the first-ever July Shorts, and continued membership growth, now totaling nearly 1,600 unique members.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, OLLI at AU made a quick and large-scale change to online learning via Zoom. While membership dropped that spring, the summer and fall of 2020 saw record high numbers. Lectures and events were also moved online. This format allowed OLLI at AU to begin recording classes and events to make them available to members who otherwise could not attend. Online classes continued through the spring of 2021; a selection of in-person classes returned in the fall of 2021, and a hybrid format was introduced to accommodate both members ready to get back in the classroom and those more comfortable with remote learning. In 2022, OLLI at AU returned to about 64 in-person and hybrid classes with the remainder online.