LLI Spotlight:  Linda Shook, Director, OLLI at Auburn

By Peter Spiers

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Auburn University began as the Auburn University Academy for Lifelong Learning (AUall) in 1990.  Founder Mary Burkhart, who worked in continuing education at Auburn, guided growth from an initial membership of 30 people to 200 in 2007.  That year the organization received its initial Osher Foundation grant, became an OLLI, and hired Linda Shook as its first full-time, paid employee.  OLLI at Auburn now boasts more than 900 members at three separate campuses — Auburn University, Auburn University at Montgomery, and at the Chambers County Library in nearby Valley, Alabama.  An annual fee of $25 entitles members to audit Auburn University courses, access books and online resources from the University’s library system, ride university shuttle buses and register for OLLI courses.  Course fees — for as many courses as you want — are $115 per semester, or $200 for the entire year, and summer courses are free.  In addition to Linda, full-time staff includes OLLI Coordinator Barbara Daron and, for the fall semester, an intern paid by the university assigned to OLLI to undertake a comprehensive membership survey to better understand the learning needs and interests of retiring Baby Boomers. OLLI at Auburn also hires Auburn University students as AV Assistants to coordinate technology during OLLI classes, which is a great way to create interaction with Auburn students and OLLI students.       

What do you consider your major responsibilities at OLLI at Auburn? 

Lifelong learners want to learn, and my primary responsibility is to make sure we’re providing high-quality, non-credit academic programming in line with the Osher mandate to provide diverse and stimulating learning opportunities.

More broadly, my role is to be an advocate for older adults and help them age well by supporting their involvement in OLLI as learners but also in leadership, teaching, and other volunteer roles. 

Finally, I’m involved in strategic planning and fundraising.  I work with our University Outreach Development Officer, Kristi Megahee, to provide ways for OLLI members to financially support OLLI at Auburn. Kristi is setting up ways for OLLI at Auburn members to give to a scholarship fund, memorials and honorariums, and special projects, such as support for OLLI’s new home. This summer, OLLI at Auburn became the beneficiary of a gift by Dr. Ann Pearson of a historic house called Sunny Slope, adjacent to Auburn’s campus, where our office will be based.  Dr. Pearson is a historian and a preservationist.  She believes in the mission of OLLI.  We’re confident her generosity will inspire other gifts, large and small!   

How is your relationship with Auburn University?

The university’s consent to our use of Sunny Slope is a clear message that it values what we bring to the university community, and about half of our teachers have some kind of affiliation with the university.  Royrickers Cook, Assistant Vice President of Auburn University Outreach, is the administrator to whom I report.  Dr. Cook’s enthusiastic support of OLLI at Auburn makes a huge difference. The city of Auburn was just featured in Where to Retire magazine.  The article featured interviews with three couples, two of whom are OLLI members.  Our relationship with both the university and the city is strong.

What are some favorite courses you offer? 

Our course “Writing Our Lives,” taught by Terry Ley, has been offered each term for over 10 years.  Terry esteems everyone while helping each student to become a better writer.  Joseph Kicklighter, who taught in the History Department at Auburn until he retired in 2015, has taught at OLLI every OLLI term since his retirement in May 2015.  This semester he’s teaching “History of Roman and Anglo-Saxon England” and over 125 OLLI members have registered for his course.  We have a retired AU pharmacist, Mike Reinke, who has transferred his knowledge of chemistry and microbiology to making craft beer, and he’s just started a three-course sequence on how it’s done.  Our courses cover science, social science, music and literature, lots of art, and even kitchen skills classes taught in a commercial kitchen.   Tai chi and yoga are offered every term; our students see these physical activity courses as complimentary to their academic courses.

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

I have to give a shout out to OLLI at the University of Alabama and OLLI at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.  Jennifer Anderson at Tuscaloosa, Maxine Doherty at Huntsville and I get along very well, there’s no sense of competition, and we’ve learned so much from each other.  I also look at the OLLIs at Furman University and UNC-Asheville as premier programs.  Truly, every OLLI program is unique and does an excellent job. We learn so much from each, thanks to the communications systems at the OLLI National Resource Center (NCR).  Steven Thaxton and his staff do an excellent job of helping all OLLI directors make our programs viable, relevant and interesting. 

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

We just had an open house and there were lots of new and younger faces.  This new wave of members wants more day trips, more hiking and outdoor activity, and likes experiential more than classroom learning.  Some of these people are still working, so we’ll be experimenting with late-afternoon and evening classes this winter.  Anticipating moving into our new property is challenging us to rethink the way we use space, and we’re excited to have a gathering place for members and an opportunity to figure out what to do with some smaller classroom spaces.

What did you do before you came to OLLI at Auburn? 

Most of my career has been spent with not-for-profit organizations.  Since I started working with OLLI at Auburn, I earned a master’s in Adult Education, specializing in studies in older adult learning.  My husband is an academic so we’ve move a bit, and I’ve worked for the American Cancer Society in Mississippi, a historical society in Oklahoma, and the symphony in Baton Rouge.  It’s a good thing that I like change. 

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

Our family has traveled abroad a fair amount. As a family we spent a couple of semesters living in France and in Romania. My goal is to visit every continent, so I have three more to go. One country I would like to visit is Iceland because it is remote and untouched.  I also want to see more of our own national parks.  I grew up in Homestead, Florida, where there’s a big Cuban population, and I’d love to visit Cuba, so I guess I need to schedule a Road Scholar trip to do so. 

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

Incoming Auburn freshman were assigned a book called “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, who has spent his life battling unjust and discriminatory sentencing practices in America. Many of our OLLI students are reading this book as a part of a class that OLLI member Marilyn Garret is teaching.  The book is a real gut-check.  You may not like it, but you can’t run from the truth the book reveals.