Osher Institute makes lifelong learning easy — and fun!

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Utah is for people ages 50 and older who have a deep and abiding love of learning — and socializing! The program brings people from all backgrounds together to learn from subject matter experts about topics ranging from Persian cooking to politics. In this episode of U Rising, you’ll hear from three people about the program’s purpose, its shift to virtual during the pandemic and why that is working so well, and about the friendships developed and other benefits of by being involved in the Osher Institute. Recorded on Thursday  Feb. 18, 2021. Thanks to Brooke Adams, Emily Black and Dave White for technical assistance. Original music by Taylor Hartley. Read the full transcript.


President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising Podcast. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah. Since 2004, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Utah has provided learning opportunities for Utahns ages 50 and older. What a great program! I know many participants in the Osher program and to a person they tell me it's one of the most positive things in their lives. Deep lasting friendships, lifelong learning, fabulous combination.

My guests today are going to tell us a little bit about that. Deb Keyek-Franssen, Debbie Leaman and Tamara Springer. Deb is the associate vice president and dean of Continuing and Online Education. She joined the U about a year ago. Tamara Springer is the chair of the Osher Advisory Committee and has been actively involved in Osher since 2012. Debbie Lehman is the Osher writing instructor and has been a member and an instructor with Osher since 2017.

Warmest welcome to all three of you.

Debbie Leaman: Thank you, President Watkins.

President Watkins: Great to have you with us today. Deb, give us a little bit of an overview of the Osher Institute. How it got started, a little bit about its founders, and what its goals and mission are?

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: Sure thing. So, the Bernard Osher Foundation was founded in 1977. It's headquartered in San Francisco. And what they want to do is to support the arts and education through its foundation. What's remarkable about this foundation is that it has 124 programs co-located at higher education institutions around the country and Utah is one of them. And there aren't that many, and we're really lucky to have such a vibrant program supported by such a strong foundation right here at the U.

You're right, Ruth, we just celebrated, or we would have celebrated, the 50th anniversary of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the U. Unfortunately, that big celebration has been put on hold because of the pandemic. But there's still a lot to celebrate. We have about 1,500 members. We're one of the largest memberships of all of the Oshers anywhere around the country. And all you really have to do is go to one of the — and Tamara you'll have to remind me what it's called — but there's this meeting twice a year where you can come and see what courses are available. And I was able to participate in that, or at least watch it this year. There were two days of two-hour sessions where different instructors came and talked about what their courses were going to be like. And right after that, I think I became the most recent member of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Utah.

We have a really engaged advisory committee. We have 150 instructors, I believe. We have about 35 people who are providing advice and in an advisory capacity to help grow our programs and help to get these programs out to populations that we don't normally reach. So, I am so proud of this group, of the staff we have in online and continuing education, but mostly I'm just so honored that these remarkable people put so much time and effort and compassion into building and sustaining a really valuable program.

President Watkins: I think it was a bit of genius of the Bernard Osher Foundation to create these institutes, particularly co-located with universities because of the interest and the opportunity. I imagine it's a little bit hard to decide what your offerings are going to be. Tamara, tell us a little bit about that. What approach do you take in terms of identifying topics and recruiting people to lead and teach in the Osher Institute?

Tamara Springer: We do have a curriculum committee and the members on that committee search for instructors. And some of those are retired professors. Some are just subject experts, people's friends, acquaintances. Some are Osher members themselves. And even during the pandemic, we've been able to offer 50 different courses in a term. The meeting that Deb was referring to are the open houses that we actually have before each term. They used to be in person where the instructors, you could talk to them, ask questions about their class. Now it's a virtual offering and it's two days of having the instructors talk about their class. Very effective to have that virtually. But the curriculum committee, they also evaluate the effectiveness of the teaching. We have evaluations after each class, and we review those evaluations, try to work with instructors. We want to have engaged discussions and good classes that we offer everybody.

We have six-week terms. The university has a 12-week term. Osher just meets six weeks during that term. Most of our classes are 90-minutes long and lasts for six weeks, but some of them are shorter. Some we only meet for four times. We have classes in all kinds of topics — literature, history, political science, music, health and fitness, just honestly, whatever you can imagine, we would have a course offering. And the nice thing about these classes is there are no exams at all. No papers. Many of us have been involved in academia. We were used to writing papers, the pressures of deadlines and tests. Osher classes are just the pure joy of learning. Lifelong learning with other people who are also interested in learning. The tuition is affordable. There are scholarships available for those who cannot afford the tuition. And we have other things besides classes.

We have a lunch and learn lecture each of those six weeks. And that's open to the public, no membership required at all. And those are subject matter experts that talk about a topic — redistricting in Utah, we've had that this term, Yosemite Park, all kinds of different things. When we were able to meet in person, we could bring our lunch and just sit and listen. Now, you can watch it streamed on Facebook, or they record the lunch and learn lecture and they are available on the Osher website.

We also have special events outside of classes, special events that are a one-time thing. They used to be field trips, a lot of them, where we would go behind the scenes of different places, visit museums, art galleries. Now, a lot of those, we can still do the ones that are outside, weather permitting, or we have some of those virtually.

I have one coming up this week on Persian cooking, a special event, where they will give us an ingredient list, we can cook along with the instructor or we can just watch and learn how to do that. We also have special-interest groups where you can meet new friends. We have one on Hemingway. We have a non-fiction book group. We have one on political science, if you want to just get together and talk politics with other people. We have one that's kind of on hold right now that was just a social special interest group that we would just meet to socialize. So, Osher is a wide program with something for everyone.

President Watkins: Such an impressive list and range of learning opportunities. I applaud that. Now, I know we're all missing the social connection with each other. Have there been any advantages that have come through the pandemic? Are there any things about now delivering and engaging online that have been positive for Osher?

Tamara Springer: Yes. And, in fact, our members have told us that they appreciate not having to travel on bad roads, not having to deal with parking issues. And because of our particular age group, we have some who have medical problems that make it difficult to go up to an in-person class. Or some of our members are caretakers for other family members and were not able to take classes before and now they can take classes virtually. So, there have been some advantages. And, in fact, even when we are able to resume in-person classes, we are thinking that we will always have an aspect of Osher be through an online format because of the advantages.

President Watkins: So, much like the university as a whole, there are things we're learning in this pandemic that we're going to want to continue, even at Osher. And Debbie, you joined, I think first as a learner at Osher and then as an instructor. So, tell listeners a little bit about your story?

Debbie Leaman: Yes, that's exactly right. I first joined because a few years ago I received an iPad as a birthday present. And because I was a certain age, I really had no clue how to use it. So, the first class I signed up for through Osher and I was thrilled to be able to have this class available to me, was Beginning iPad. And then I took an intermediate class, and they were both taught by an amazing instructor, Debbie White. So, after that, I just started taking more classes. The class on creativity called “Mining the Magic. I've taken a political science class, a literature class.

So, that's basically how I got involved as a member. And then as an instructor, I had been teaching writing classes through another organization called Art Access which is downtown. And this was simultaneous to me becoming an Osher member and I thought I should take what I offer at Art Access and see if Osher is interested. And the class that I was teaching was a collaboration with Art Access and Salt Lake County Department of Aging Services. So, the class was Creative Aging. So, that dovetailed really nicely with Osher.

President Watkins: I feel like I'm experiencing creative aging. So, that maybe it's getting to be about time that I should go to that class!

Debbie Leaman: Yeah, right? It's a really fun class.

President Watkins: Well, tell us about Osher members. I would imagine that part of the magic of Osher is bringing together people with different life stories and histories and experiences that then can get to know each other. So, tell us about that.

Debbie Leaman: Well, exactly. I mean, I really feel like there is a sense of community that feels different with other settings that I've been involved with. I feel like we all have this sense of shared values and certainly a sense of curiosity in intellectual engagement. And I actually think one of the best parts about being a member and also teaching is that we share our wisdom, because there's so much depth of experience. All of the members share different perspectives, and we all learn from each other. And so that really is what keeps me at Osher. I think that we're all like-minded for the most part and just sharing different perspective has been wonderful.

President Watkins: I would guess the common tie that binds people here is a genuine love of learning and breadth of opportunity and experience. It's exciting to have the chance to engage, and particularly people that have worked hard for a long time and not have the time to do as much breadth of learning as they would hope to. So, I don't know, Deb or Tamara, if there's anything you want to add about your experiences with Osher, or about the people you've met there, or what you've learned, and if there's anything that you'd want listeners to know?

Tamara Springer: The nice thing is that you meet people with different backgrounds. When you work in a certain career, you are socialized with people with the same background. And through Osher, I have met and become friends with engineers, with nurses, with retired doctors, retired judges. And it's so nice in the class discussions, which are very lively and engaged, it's so nice to hear the perspectives of people from different backgrounds. And now that we have so many people working from home during the pandemic, these classes are for people 50 and older, and it used to be much more difficult to take an Osher class if you were still working full time. Now, when you're working from home and have more flexibility in your work hours, we found that some are taking classes while they're still working. And, in fact, we have attracted both students and instructors from out of state because they've heard about our Osher. And when there are virtual offerings, you're not limited by geography.

Debbie Leaman: And I think the class that I just finished teaching this past week, which was a personal essay class, the makeup of this class was two attorneys, a retired anesthesiologist, a handful of psychologists, high school English teacher, a chemistry professor and an engineer who happens to be a poet. But I feel like this was very representative of all the classes that I've taught or been involved with.

President Watkins: I think this is so exciting, remarkable breadth of learning opportunities, great diversity of people and the opportunity to learn for the fun of it and not for an exam. Wow, this just sounds perfect. So, Deb, I'm guessing that as our listeners are hearing about this, they're going to want to know where they can learn more. How can they be a part of the Osher Institute here at the University of Utah?

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: We encourage people to go to that's O-S-H-E-R. And there's information about how to become a member, a list of classes, and a little bit more about the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Utah. Membership is required to sign up for courses, it's $40 a year, which is very reasonable. The course fees range, maybe they might hit around $100 for a six-week course, which is also quite reasonable for the quality of instruction and engagement that you get from those courses. And as Tamara mentioned earlier, there's also scholarships available for people who don't have the means to pay the membership fee or the course fees.

We'd like as many people to be engaged as possible. I think Tamara and Debbie both said it. When we talk about the breadth of backgrounds and information and expertise and skills and knowledge that different people bring to the table, it just helps everybody with their creativity, their learning and their enjoyment. That's what we hope to get — just a really bigger group of people to understand how wonderful this program is.

President Watkins: I really want to, as we close, give a shout out to the Bernard Osher Foundation, brilliance to support and enable this kind of lifelong learning at a university like the University of Utah.

And I want to give a shout out to you, Deb, Tamara, Debbie, thank you for joining us today. Thank you for what you're doing to strengthen our community with opportunities to learn new things through the years. So, my appreciation to you for what you're doing and making possible at the U, and for our entire community and frankly, even beyond Utah right now. Well done!

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: Thank you, President Watkins.

President Watkins: Thank you listeners for being part of this conversation today. Go learn about the Osher Institute at the University of Utah. What an opportunity throughout the lifespan to continue learning. I hope you'll tune in for the next edition of the U Rising Podcast.