LLI Spotlight: Sheila Rocker Heppe, Director of Extended Education & OLLI Programs, Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA

By Peter Spiers

OLLI @ Humboldt State University, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, is based at Humboldt State University (HSU) in Arcata, C.A., but holds most of its classes across Humboldt Bay in Eureka. The Redwood Coast of Northern California is isolated — a five-hour drive north of San Francisco and equally far south of Eugene, Ore. When you talk to Sheila Rocker Heppe, who has served as Director of Extended Education & OLLI Programs at HSU for seven years, you sense that it’s a vibrant community of committed, active citizens who have learned to make the most of this isolation by leveraging community resources to their utmost. OLLI-HSU has grown to 1,300 members — larger, Sheila says, than you might expect in a community of this size — and members are a mix of lifelong area residents, retired HSU alumni, staff, and faculty, and newcomers drawn to the area for its natural beauty and outdoorsy ethos. 

One innovate way OLLI-HSU attract newcomers — and deepens its connection with the community — is with its weekly “Brown Bag Luncheon Presentations & Discussions.” These weekly sessions, open and free to the public, often feature regional agencies and companies telling their “creation stories.” Spring semester Brown Bag Luncheon guests, for example, included the founders of the Redwood Curtain theater company, Dick Taylor Chocolates, and Visiting Angels, a regional social service agency committed to helping people remain in their homes as they age or during a serious illness. OLLI-HSU has a full-time coordinator, Kim Laney, and a dedicated core of volunteers.

What do you consider your major responsibilities at OLLI-HSU? 

My most important responsibility is to represent OLLI to leaders in both the university and community. We have an excellent relationship with the university, and many active and emeriti faculty and high level administrators are involved with OLLI as members, instructors and donors. HSU leadership really understands the role OLLI plays in fostering a strong relationship with the community and reflecting well on the university.

My work with leaders in the community is focused on gathering people with great passion to be part of our curriculum. The Brown Bag Luncheon series is a great example of this. 

What are some favorite courses you offer? 

Given our location, our members love programs about the natural world, and many of our programs include field trips to nearby National Parks, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administered sites or to the tide pools on our beautiful Pacific coast. Local history is also very popular. Two of our members, Jerry and Gisela Rohde have led programs for years to both natural and historic sites, have been instructors on Road Scholar programs in our area, and recently made a major bequest to the organization. Jerry and Gisela are typical of our dedicated and committed member base. We have a thriving arts community in our region and arts programs also are very popular. One of our writing instructors, Tracey Barnes Priestley, drew on the stories she heard in her class to launch a newspaper column and a television series called “CONVERSATIONS: Life in the Second Half” that’s broadcasted on our local PBS station. Professor Tom Gage from HSU, who has personal and academic ties to Syria, has taught several popular courses on Islam and the Middle East. One of our spring courses — “Ten Steps to End Your Sugar Cravings” — was so popular that it spun off its own study group.

Our curriculum committee — nine people with strong ties to other organizations in our community like the Humboldt Country Historical Society — has done a terrific job encouraging people to share their ideas for courses and keeping OLLI woven into our local community. 

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

I’ve gotten lots of ideas about branding by observing from afar the OLLI at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. It’s a good one to watch. More locally, I admire the three-campus model at OLLI at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Ore. They’ve set up a system where one instructor teaches the same course at different locations. And OLLI at Chico State University in Chico, C.A. have accomplished great things in marketing and fundraising.

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

We just finished a retreat where we did strategic planning for the next five years. One of the things we’re exploring is how to use technology to enable people who live in a remote and beautiful place to get access to the wider world. We tiptoed into this arena this summer with a program in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution called “Exploring America’s Roots & Art.”  (For more detail about this course, see page 12 of OLLI-HSU’s Summer 2016 Course Catalog.)  It was a four-session class connecting our students in California with a docent in the galleries of Smithsonian American Art Museum via a live video feed and two-way interactive communication. Our students loved it. (Editor’s Note: This program was also offered at OLLIs at California State University, Fullerton, Bradley University, Pennsylvania State University, and University of Alabama, Huntsville.) 

What did you do before you came to OLLI-HSU? 

I was an eighth grade English and history teacher in Winters, Calif., before I moved up to Arcata 21 years ago. I worked for 14 years at the HSU School of Education before coming over to Extended Education and OLLI. I have a bachelor’s degree in English and psychology from University of California, Davis, a master’s degree in counseling from the University of San Francisco, and I’m working on my Doctorate in educational leadership, also from UC Davis. 

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

My husband and I love to travel and we have traveled extensively in South America and parts of Asia. We just got back from a trip to Puerto Rico with our children where we stayed in a treehouse in the rainforest and saw the amazing bioluminescent bay in Parguera! We haven’t been to Europe together, and we’d love to go and be a part of a community there for a while. 

Tell me about a book you’ve read recently that you would recommend to others.

I read three books on my vacation in Puerto Rico. The most memorable was “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. I loved the style and it’s given me so much to think about.