January 12, 2017

As her own retirement approaches, founding director reflects on SVSU program dedicated to engaging retirees

Jo Brownlie is in the business of helping others cross items off their bucket lists. It is a source of pride for the founding director of Saginaw Valley State University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, or OLLI.

Brownlie will retire from SVSU in February after 31 years at the university and 16 years overseeing OLLI, a program that offers enlightening educational opportunities and engaging trips for its 50-years-and-older members.

“It has been a pleasure to see so many members cross things off their bucket lists on our trips,” Brownlie said.

“This has included zip-lining and white water rafting in Costa Rica, enjoying the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, marveling over the Colosseum in Rome, touring the Acropolis in Athens, traveling on the Napa Valley wine train and gazing down on the Grand Canyon from the North Rim.”

The travel adventures are a small component of the larger OLLI experience, which Brownlie helped found in 2001 when the university recognized and answered a community call for enrichment opportunities that include those approaching retirement or already retired. Prior to receiving an endowment from the Bernard Osher Foundation in 2005, SVSU’s program originally was known as the Institute for Learning and Retirement.

“Education for that age group was an unmet need at that time,” Brownlie said. “That population really does enjoy learning new things, and no one in our region was filling the need at that time despite the fact the number of retirees was really starting to grow. So we helped fill the gap.”

About 250 people signed up during the inaugural year. Membership has grown to nearly 2,000 currently.

At first, the institute offered courses on a variety of topics that appealed to the demographic. As membership grew, the institute also offered educational trips both in the United States and abroad. The first trip in 2005 sent members to Spain. In the years since, Costa Rica and Ireland have proven to be popular destinations, as have domestic cities such as New Orleans and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“OLLI has had such a positive impact on many of our members’ lives,” Brownlie said.  “We have actually been told that our program has saved lives. After leaving a full-time job, or after the death of a spouse, OLLI classes and trips can add structure to a member’s day. They also have the opportunity to meet new friends who share their love of learning, fitness, a hobby or travel.”

The experience has proven inspiring for the program’s instructors too.

Katherine Ellison, Ph.D., an adjunct instructor of history at SVSU, began teaching history-based classes for OLLI two years ago.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” said Ellison, who also serves as school board president for the Hemlock Public School District in Saginaw County.

“A lot of our members have lived through some of the history I’m teaching. They’ve taught me things — things I never would have known from just reading books.”

When teaching a class on former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, for example, one of the OLLI members presented Ellison a photograph.

“It was a picture of him, shaking hands with Richard Nixon (former president as well as vice president to Eisenhower) when Nixon came to Saginaw to campaign for Eisenhower,” Ellison said.

Her experience with OLLI was so inspirational that Ellison applied for the job as Brownlie’s successor. Ellison has begun her work in January, providing some time for a smooth transition.

“I gave my students in my most recent OLLI course a brief survey and asked them what comes to mind when they first think of OLLI,” Ellison said. “Many of them commented ‘friends.’ Not only does OLLI allow seniors to be lifelong learners, but it also allows me an opportunity to be a lifelong learner as well by being a part of the organization.”

While Brownlie soon will step down as director February 1, she won’t be leaving OLLI. She signed up for three classes in 2017, when she hopes to check off a few more items on her personal bucket list.