LLI Spotlight: Julie Vidotto, Director, OLLI at Clemson University, Clemson, SC

By Peter Spiers

Founded in 2002, the OLLI at Clemson University serves more than 1,000 older adults in the Upstate region of South Carolina, a popular retirement destination for both Clemson alumni and others drawn to the low taxes, mild climate, natural beauty and thousands of miles of lakeshore in this corner of the state.  Julie Vidotto has been the OLLI at Clemson Director since early in 2014.

What do you consider your top 3-5 responsibilities at OLLI at Clemson?

Our OLLI is a member-driven and volunteer-led organization.  My primary responsibility is to assist these volunteers by creating an administration structure that enables their creative juices to flow.  Beyond that, I work to maintain strong relations with Clemson University by making connections to the faculty and generally representing OLLI in the university community.  For example, I sit on the Advisory Board of Clemson’s Institute for Engaged Aging; through this connection OLLI members have been able to take part in research on topics like the impact of stress on aging, and on how practicing yoga can improve one’s quality of life and even delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.  We’ve also brought OLLI members together with Clemson undergraduates as, for example, a test panel for a college technical writing class.  These connections really add value to the concept of lifelong learning.

What did you do before you came to OLLI Clemson?

My professional background is in education for museums and public gardens.

What are some favorite courses you offer?

We have a philosophy course that never stops running.  It’s a true perennial; the class meets every week whether OLLI is in session or not.  The course—nicknamed “The Cult of Larry”—is facilitated by Larry McCollough, a retired professor.  This semester the class is examining the roots of modern democracy, the arguments for and against capitalism, liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, anarchism, and communism.  History classes are invariably best sellers, especially anything having to do with the Civil War.  A new course this fall that’s going to be terrific is called Apps for Daily Living where participants will learn how to install and use relevant apps in categories like health, entertainment, news, and travel.  Our member Myles Standish, who has a Ph.D. in Astronomy from Yale and spent his career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, taught a popular course on the The Birth, Life and Death of a Star and is following that up with Time, Calendars, and Clocks.     

Tell me about a member or members who has or have made a significant contribution to the OLLI’s success?

Bob Cassam is the head of our technology support group; he’s our guy for any project involving hardware or software.  Bob, who retired from Hewlett Packard and speaks the language, researched different programs, interviewed vendors, and managed the system implementation when we needed a new registration system.  Staff couldn’t have done it.  Bill and Marty Bruehl started our cinema program years ago, and now Thursday Morning Movies is a fixture on our calendar.  To top that they proposed establishing and operating an art house film venue at OLLI, where nothing like it has existed within a two-hour drive.  This great addition to the Clemson community launches this fall, and our first series will include Renoir’s Grand Illusion, The 400 Blows by Truffaut, and Kind Hearts and Coronets.    It will be a great addition to the Clemson community.  We’ll ask for a donation at the door to help with the operating costs of the building. 

Is there another LLI you admire and have learned something from?

Linda Shook from OLLI at Auburn and Catherine Frank from OLLI at UNC-Asheville have been great mentors, but I’ve learned something from every LLI I’ve come across.  I sometimes feel isolated as the “lifelong learning” person at Clemson; my peers aren’t here, they’re out there at LLIs across the country.   To me what’s interesting and provocative about the movement is that there’s no “ideal” LLI—each one has to be responsive to its members and its environment and there is endless variety of creative solutions to learn from.  At the Alabama conference this summer I learned about Lunafest—a traveling festival of short films “by, for, and about women”—in a casual conversation with an attendee from Florida.  We immediately contacted the Lunafest organization and have been chosen as a festival venue.

What developments do you see in the future for OLLI at Clemson or the lifelong learning movement more broadly?

Staying responsive to our membership is our biggest challenge.  The new Apps for Daily Living course, for example, won’t appeal to our members who don’t have answering machines, email, or smart phones and never will.  And this isn’t just about age—we have 80-year-olds with Apple watches but also 60-year-old widows whose husbands took care of everything.  We need communications and a curriculum for a broad range of interests and styles.  Our members are also very busy; they do a lot in the world and we have to stay relevant as competition for their time increases.  Longer courses are becoming less popular.  A course with six sessions might get only a handful of enrollments, but break that same course into two parts with three sessions each and it will fill right up.    

What was your formal education?

My undergraduate degree is in ornamental horticulture, and I have a Master’s in museum education from GW.  My expertise is in “object-based” education, using artifacts to tell a story or teach a lesson.  I also have a Doctorate in educational leadership in higher ed administration.  This is where a lot of the research is happening and I want to be part of that.

Where would you most like to travel to that you haven’t visited already? Why?

When my father was in the Army he served in Eritrea, and the pictures he brought back have always exerted a powerful emotional pull on me.  I’d love to visit Africa and experience a unique culture that hasn’t been fully corrupted by McDonald’s.

Is there you’ve read for pleasure recently that you would recommend to others?

I love Eric Larson and just finished Dead Wake, his new book about the sinking of the Lusitania. Larson quotes extensively from the letters Woodrow and Edith Wilson wrote to each other.  I’m someone who tends to talk a bit too fast and, this book reminded me of the emotional value of the written word between individuals.  It’s been a good reminder of the value of communicating at a slower pace.