LLI Spotlight:  Ara Rogers, Director, OLLI-USF

By Peter Spiers

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at USF (The University of Southern Florida) was founded in 1993—with support from what was previously called the Elderhostel Institute Network—as the USF Division of Senior Programs.  The organization became an OLLI in 2005 and received $1 million grants from the Bernard Osher Foundation in both 2007 and 2008.  Entering its 23rd year, OLLI-USF has 1,500 members who pay annual dues of $40 and additional course fees ranging from $20 to $85 depending on the number of class sessions, the venue, and the cost of class materials.  While generally membership is required for class enrollment, exceptions exist where a partnership can be created and access to an appropriate venue can be secured; in a cooperative arrangement with the Tampa Bay History Center, for example, that organization’s members are able to enroll in OLLI courses offered there.  Ara Rogers describes the prototypical OLLI-USF member as a “67-year-old woman with a master’s degree.”  Unlike many parts of Florida, Tampa isn’t a retirement destination; most members are originally from somewhere else but moved to the area for work or to be near family.  Ara leads a staff of five — three of whom are full-time employees.  In addition to Ara, the other full-time staff includes Joseph McAuliffe, who coordinates liberal arts programming, and Charise Dixie, hired recently as registrar after the division of Continuing Education could no longer accommodate OLLI registration with its small staff. 

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

I see my first duty as working with the leaders of the organization to help them achieve what they want to achieve, to actualize the members’ vision.  Though we’re part of the university, OLLI-USF is effectively governed by a Board of Advisors, made up of seven members elected by the broader membership, and the chairs of our seven standing committees—Curriculum, Development, Strategic and Organizational Planning, Social Events, Volunteer Management, Membership, and Finance.  I work closely with this entire group.  On my first day on the job 15 years ago I learned that our member-leaders were petitioning to move us out of the Continuing Education division, so at the very beginning I had to put a lot of effort into rebuilding a neglected relationship with the university.  I had to quickly establish credibility for myself, and learn how to balance the interests of our OLLI with those of our host institution.  We’re in another delicate moment again in this area; our OLLI has been growing while Continuing Education at USF has contracted.  We were once auxiliary to Continuing Education, but for a time our roles threatened to reverse.  Fortunately, Continuing Education has begun to show signs of new growth, and that’s a more sustainable model.  Beyond these two major responsibilities I spend a lot of time serving as liaison between our volunteers and our venues, and seeing to all those numerous administrative details that keep the trains running on time.

What are some favorite courses you offer?

Our organization was founded as a union of a Learning in Retirement Institute and a SeniorNet training center, so technology education is a big part of what we do, though now, of course, the majority of our classes are about hand-held devices and the cloud instead of PCs.  On the liberal arts side, life story-writing classes are perennial favorites, and we have a very strong and popular Great Books program that we operate in partnership with the Tampa Bay Great Books Council using the curriculum and the methods of the Great Books Foundation in Chicago.  It’s a terrific program—some of our members have done training to learn their version of the Socratic Method and we’ve been able to transfer what they’ve learned to other courses.  We’ve also been part of the Foreign Policy Association’s Great Decisions program since 2002.  We have a large population of current and ex-military in our area with a huge interest in military history and geopolitics—we’ve had to turn people away from our Politics Special Interest Group.  Our instructor Rodney Coleman has a huge following and this fall is leading the third and final installment of a course called “Politics of the 2016 National Elections.”  Rodney is a former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force and is very skilled at eliciting a variety of opinions while maintaining peace in the classroom! 

About a third of our instructors are faculty retired from USF or elsewhere, another third are members teaching about a subject they’re passionate about, and a third are people from the community, like docents from the zoo teaching about natural history.

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

I’ve learned things from so many different LLIs, but the programs in North Carolina—at UNC-Asheville, NC State, and Duke—have been inspirations because they’re wonderful organizations with strong processes.  We lifted practically verbatim Asheville’s approach to creating new SIGs (Special Interest Groups), which asks members to put together a core group of 12 people with a common interest for an initial organizational meeting as a starting point, and carefully monitors SIG content so that it doesn’t compete with paid classes.  We’ve followed NC State’s lead in creating classes designed to help members learn more about how institutions in the local community work, and our structure for faculty support was borrowed from Duke. We have had a strong partnership with our sister OLLI at Eckerd College (in St. Petersburg) for many years and we are working together now, planning the next Southern Region Conference for Learning in Retirement, to be held in late summer 2017 at Eckerd.

What developments do you see in the future for or the Lifelong Learning Movement more broadly?

The big change we’ve seen is how the changing nature of retirement has impacted how volunteers want to be involved with OLLI.  Volunteers are less willing to commit themselves to a standing committee, and more interested in having a specific, limited project to complete that might last six months or a year.  We’re still figuring out how to make that dynamic work for us.  I’m also seeing that for many members volunteering is the learning experience they’re after more than the classroom experience itself, so we’re always looking for ways to involve people beyond the classroom. 

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

I was a bookstore manager and then trained bookstore managers around the country for both Barnes & Noble and Borders.  When our son was born I realized I needed to do something else and expected to continue in the corporate training field.  I needed a part-time job in graduate school and learned that USF’s Learning in Retirement Institute was looking for a part-time graduate assistant.  Along the way I’ve gotten a master’s and a Ph.D. in adult education. 

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

I’m a big “Lord of the Rings” fan and would love to go to New Zealand, and Machu Picchu is another place we dream about going.  

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

As a former bookstore manager you would think I would read more than I do.  I find myself reading online a lot more, and I’ve gotten hooked on podcasts.  Two of my favorites are “The Allusionist,” a podcast about words and language, and the BBC’s “Being Human,” a podcast about human nature and existence.