OLLI Scholars on Lessons Shared
They come to study at the University of Minnesota from places near and far—California, China, Iowa, India, New York, Norway, Mankato, Mozambique, South Carolina, and South Korea, to name a few—yet only 20 go on to become OLLI Scholars each year.
Hosted by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Minnesota (OLLI at the U of M), OLLI Scholars represent a select group of University graduates and postdoctoral researchers who are dedicated to honing their teaching skills by developing curricula and leading courses in their respective areas of expertise. The program, the brainchild of OLLI at the U of M founder and former director, Steve Benson, offers stipends of $1,000 as compensation for their work, and yet, year after year, it’s the experience that scholars cite as being most beneficial and appreciated.
The sentiment is not limited to the scholars. OLLI members, generally characterized as active lifelong learners over 50 years old, are actively involved in the selection of the scholars, and they often express the gratification that accompanies learning from and contributing to the growth and professional experience of budding scholars and researchers. It's intergenerational education at its best, and includes numerous opportunities for experiential teaching and learning, give-and-take, and call-and-response, on both sides of the equation.
“Not a week goes by that I don’t talk about the OLLI Scholars program at the University of Minnesota (my Golden alma mater),” notes Steve Thaxton ’80, executive director of the Osher National Resource Center at Northwestern University. “The combination of passionate graduate researchers/teachers with intellectually ambitious OLLI students is genius. It allows institute members to support both their host university and the scholars, all while learning from impressive new generations as their academic careers are launching.”
“The combination of passionate graduate researchers/teachers with intellectually ambitious OLLI students is genius. It allows institute members to support both their host university and the scholars, all while learning from impressive new generations as their academic careers are launching.”
Since its founding in 2008, close to 275 U of M students have participated in the OLLI Scholars program. Here, in their own words, are the experiences of a few of the most recent scholars.
Degree pursuing: PhD in Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development (Comparative and International Development Education track)
Expected degree completion: spring 2023
College: College of Education and Human Development
Course taught: Global Citizenship (winter 2022)
What led to your interest in becoming an OLLI Scholar? I have ambitions to teach at the university level. I wanted to teach an undergraduate class on my research topic (global citizenship). Becoming an OLLI Scholar looked like a great way to develop my own syllabus around this topic. Also, because it's not as formal and structured as a credit-bearing university class, I had the flexibility to try out different teaching techniques and activities.
What stands out most about the experience? It has been such a rewarding and insightful experience! This was my first time teaching an OLLI class and also my first time teaching adults. What stood out to me the most was just how interested and engaged everyone was. We covered some complex and controversial topics in the course (for example, what does citizenship mean, who can be a citizen, who can be a global citizen, what are human rights). I was so impressed by the way in which everyone in the class engaged in thoughtful, civil, and vulnerable discussions. Everyone brought such a wealth of knowledge and experience to the class that I think we all came away having learned a great deal from one another.
What surprised you or was unexpected? To be honest, I was surprised that so many people were willing to attend an in-person class! With the pandemic still going on, I was not sure if there would be much interest in meeting in person, but I think everyone was eager to actually be in person again. I think being face-to-face with one another helped us to be able to engage in deep discussions.
What advice would you give to future OLLI Scholars? Go for it! Propose a class on a topic that really interests you and that you want to further develop. This is such a wonderful opportunity to create a class around your topic of interest, something that many graduate students don't get to do in our normal teaching assistantship roles. It's also a great learning experience to work with a population that you might not ordinarily teach.
Jeremy Hiniker, '21
Degree pursuing: Master’s in Music in Classical Guitar Performance
Expected degree completion: graduated in spring 2021
College: College of Liberal Arts
Course taught: The History of the Guitar (fall 2020)
What led to your interest in becoming an OLLI Scholar? I was interested in the opportunity to share my knowledge and gain experience teaching an academic course as opposed to a performance course.
What stands out most about the experience? It was very enjoyable interacting with the students, discussing the topics and bringing about interesting conversations on the material and related subjects.
What surprised you or was unexpected? I was surprised at how well the online medium worked for the course. I felt that the breakout rooms really helped contribute to better discussion that enriched the course for everyone.
What advice would you give to future OLLI Scholars? Take advantage of this wonderful opportunity as the students really are appreciative of your time and knowledge.
Degree pursuing: PhD in English Literature and Popular Culture
Expected degree completion: fall 2022
College: College of Liberal Arts
Courses taught: Caring for Humanity in a Post-Apocalyptic World (winter 2022) and Literature of the Apocalypse: Origins, Definitions, and Archetypes (winter 2021)
What led to your interest in becoming an OLLI Scholar? Initially, I was looking for an opportunity to develop my teaching skills, and I hoped that expanding my focus beyond undergraduate teaching would allow me to practice tailoring my pedagogical strategies for different types of learners and to identify new teaching strategies. At the same time, I was excited by the idea of teaching a course for mature learners with a great deal of life experience…
What stands out most about the experience? When I first began teaching as a graduate student instructor, I was tempted to adopt the "sage on stage" persona as a way to assert authority over the class at a moment when I was very new to teaching and somewhat insecure. I'm glad that I began teaching for OLLI shortly after that because teaching for OLLI helped me move past that model. In my first OLLI course, my students' real-time feedback in the classroom, along with their personal anecdotes regarding our topic, enriched the course immensely. As an example, my course at that time was on science fiction, and my OLLI students brought knowledge and opinions garnered over a lifetime of reading in the genre to our classroom discussions, allowing us to engage with our works from multiple perspectives and to bring in other, related works. As the learning became mutual, our investment in the topic also seemed to deepen, which of course, makes the course more fun for all involved…. That insight has been invaluable to me…
What surprised you or was unexpected about the experience? At first I was intimidated by the idea of teaching students who, for all I knew, may have taught a course on my subject in the past, as many OLLI students are retired teachers. However, I quickly learned that the OLLI students enjoy embracing their roles as students. At the same time, they view any expertise that they may bring to our classroom as a means to help graduate student instructors develop their skills and enrich their base of knowledge. It was as if I were teaching a course to a room full of supportive mentors who also valued the knowledge I was able to share with them. My first course was extremely rewarding. As a new instructor, I felt like I'd hit the jackpot!
What advice would you give to future OLLI Scholars? Approach teaching OLLI classes as an opportunity to learn from genuinely enthusiastic, extremely knowledgeable students who want you to succeed as an instructor. The other thing that surprised me, is that some of the students have done all of the optional readings in the course, which involves reading six novels, even though OLLI courses aren't supposed to have homework. As two of my students said this semester, time to read is one of the benefits of retirement! Since some students will do the optional readings, leave time for them to discuss the readings if that becomes a trend in your course.
Degree pursuing: PhD, Urban Geography
Expected degree completion: May 2022
College: College of Liberal Arts
Course taught: Emerald Cities: The Promises and Pitfalls of Urban Sustainability (fall 2021)
What led to your interest in becoming an OLLI Scholar? I wanted additional teaching experience and the space to design and craft my own course on a topic related to my next research project. In addition, I had heard positive reports from other PhD students who said that teaching with OLLI was a rewarding and enriching experience because of the OLLI community.
What stands out most about the experience? The OLLI community is engaged and eager. This creates a very dynamic classroom space with lots of avenues for discussion and debate! As an instructor, I fed off the energy and contributions of everyone in the room, learning a lot in the process.
What surprised you or was unexpected? The level of engagement and friendliness!
What advice would you give to future OLLI Scholars? Teach something you are passionate about! Don't be afraid to take a niche approach.
Degree pursuing: PhD, Rehabilitation Science
Expected degree completion: fall 2023
College: Medical School
Courses taught: The Intersection of Music Therapy and Autism Rehabilitation (winter 2021) and Music Therapy and Dementia (fall 2021)
What led to your interest in becoming an OLLI Scholar? I have a research assistantship at the University. Since I study rehabilitation science, not music therapy, I was not teaching. OLLI Scholars provided me the platform to teach what I know the best—topics in music therapy.
What stands out most about the experience? OLLI Scholars helped me discover my love of teaching and interacting with course participants. The participants are mostly retired professionals who are not only knowledgeable in their own fields, but also full of wisdom and life experiences. Having them in discussion really enriched the class experience for everyone!
What surprised you or was unexpected? I was surprised how many people are interested in music therapy.
What advice would you give to future OLLI Scholars? Be courageous and try teaching [as an] OLLI Scholar—you will LOVE it!
Degree pursuing: PhD, Renaissance Literature and Theater with an emphasis in Shakespeare and Adaptation
Expected degree completion: 2024
College: College of Liberal Arts
Course taught: Shakespeare's Roguish Princes, Daring Lovers, and Terrible Tyrants (fall 2021)
What led to your interest in becoming an OLLI Scholar? I was looking to gain more teaching experience, and the idea of working with enthusiastic learners outside of a grading system really appealed to me.
What stands out most about the experience? The depth of knowledge students bring to the subject is really great. The first time I taught as an OLLI scholar I ended up adjusting my lesson plans because students brought a lot of prior knowledge to the subject. Even those who weren't well versed in the subject in particular had a ready curiosity.
What surprised you or was unexpected? As a young scholar, I wasn't sure how older students would feel about me being their teacher, but they saw my age and perspective as something exciting.
What advice would you give to future OLLI Scholars? Assume your students will be enthusiastic and be prepared to run with that energy.
Degree pursuing: PhD, Natural Resource Science and Management
Expected degree completion: summer, 2023
College: College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences
Course taught: Bug me! Minnesota’s Insects (fall, 2021)
What led to your interest in becoming an OLLI Scholar? It seemed like a great opportunity to get experience designing and delivering a course to an engaged and welcoming audience.
What stands out most about the experience? The welcoming, attentive, eager-to-learn nature of the OLLI students was heart-warming. The OLLI students were very engaged and asked many great questions!
What surprised you or was unexpected? The quality of the classrooms, technology, and accessibility options were wonderful and beyond expected. The classrooms are large, and tables and chairs have the ability to be moved around. The microphone system and options were wonderful and the fact that there was an IT person on site standing by made everything run very smoothly.
What advice would you give to future OLLI Scholars? Prepare your course content as far in advance as you can so that it doesn't consume substantial time during the semester, but don't be afraid to ask the students what they want to get out of the course or why they are taking the course and adjust your content or delivery to meet their desires and ideas.
Interested in becoming an OLLI Scholar? Applications for the 2022-2023 academic year are being accepted through May 20. Learn More and Apply.
You can champion intergenerational education by supporting University of Minnesota graduates and post-doctoral researchers through the OLLI Scholars Program Fund.