LLI Spotlight: Cate O’Hara, Program Director, OLLI, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio

By Peter Spiers

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Cincinnati was founded in 1990, offering fewer than 20 courses to 130 founding members that year; twenty-five years later, 1,700 learners chose from 400 courses. The OLLI is just one of the ways host University of Cincinnati OLLI supports community learning. The OLLI’s sister organization—Communiversity—offers learning programs to Cincinnatians of all ages, with an abundance of vocational programs in test preparation, job skills, and certificate programs for professional development, as well as a wide range of courses for hobbyists and more. Cate O’Hara has served as the OLLI’s Program Director since January, 2013. 

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

The most important thing I do is to support the three or four hundred volunteers who do everything from serving on committees to dropping in to greet new members on the first day of each quarter. We’re volunteer-driven and volunteer-led! A lot of the work gets done by our committees, including a Board of Trustees with real fiduciary responsibility, and committees for curriculum, budget and finance, fundraising, governance, marketing, and special events. The Board of Trustees and the Curriculum Committee are the powerhouses that carry a big workload and claim my time. I also edit our catalog and work with the university to get it designed and mailed, keep our database clean, and make sure the bills are paid. My position is a full-time paid one, and I have the support of a paid Program Coordinator and Business Manager who the OLLI shares with Communiversity. And of course I’m responsible for maintaining good relations with our host institution. I’m grateful that the University of Cincinnati appreciates what we’re bringing to the community in age diversity, members who take part in research projects and serve as mentors to undergraduates, and alumni relations. My guess is that more than half of our members are Cincinnati alumni.

What did you do before you came to OLLI?

I worked for 25 years at the Taft Museum of Art, a small art museum in Cincinnati like the Frick Museum in New York City. It’s a wonderful museum with a great collection of old masters, 19th-century European painting, Chinese ceramics, and decorative arts. I did public relations and marketing outreach and then adult and family educational programs. It was great training for OLLI!

What are some favorite courses you offer?

We have an immensely popular cycle of courses on English history taught by a British expat who is a retired high school administrator and university professor of education. He starts with an eight-week course on medieval England, moves on to the Tudor period in the next quarter, and so on up to Victorian England. Then he goes back to the beginning and starts all over again, and some members have been through the cycle more than once. History of any kind is popular, as are photography and hands-on technology of any kind.

We call our course leaders “moderators” as a reminder that they need to acknowledge the life experience of everyone in the room. They’re a mix of current and retired university professors, retired school teachers, doctors leading courses about health and lawyers leading courses about estate planning or the first amendment, and “passionate hobbyists” moderating courses about their particular interest—we have a Ph.D. chemist who leads a popular series on opera. There are also moderators from the zoo, the Cincinnati arts community, and grad students coming in to get some practice teaching in their field.

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

Gloria Giannestras is one of our founders who has taught French conversation and taken courses herself on every imaginable subject. At age 89, she still comes in to volunteer in the office during registration and is there to greet new members. In gratitude for her experience at OLLI she’s become a major donor to the University of Cincinnati.

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

Julie Mitchell at OLLI University of Dayton up the road from us has been very generous with her knowledge and wisdom. She has worked in continuing education for her entire professional life and she’s now Executive Director there. And Dayton is close enough that we’ve been able to share course moderators.

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

We’re beginning to see younger members wanting a more active learning experience. They don’t want a lecture on geology, they want to go out and climb hillsides and get down into streambeds. Rather than a lecture course on literature, they want writing workshops. I believe Boomers will change this organization organically—provided we attract them with the right curriculum.

What was your formal education?

I have a bachelor’s from Illinois State in English and French, and a master’s degree in English from Cal-Berkeley. English and history majors can communicate and make sense of a mass of information, and they take the long view! I loved school and learning and I love being in a university environment. The best part of my week is the poetry workshop I lead at the OLLI.

Tell me about OLLI’s travel program?

Our members have gone on several Road Scholar charter programs. I’ve heard rave reviews about the Finger Lakes program. People loved it because of the variety—history and museums as well as wine tasting and rock climbing. We’re looking forward to the trip to Cuba.

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

I’ve been to a lot of places in Europe, but not to Spain and Portugal yet. I’m drawn to the history, the scenery, and the art.

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

I just finished The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli. It’s a beautifully written novel about the difficult topics of murder and cancer, but at a deeper level it’s about how the stories we tell about ourselves to other people affect who we are. A book has to be surprising to draw me in. I had no idea how this story arc would play out so I had to keep reading.