LLI Spotlight:  Sarah Anderson, Director, OLLI at Penn State, University Park

By Peter Spiers

The Community Academy for Lifelong Learning (CALL) at The Pennsylvania State University was founded in 1996 after the University’s College of Health and Human Development received a small grant to benefit the education of older people in the community. The college’s dean asked staff members to study ways the grantor’s purpose might be implemented, and they learned about the Lifelong Learning Institute movement. Coincidentally, the director of Continuing Education was exploring the potential for bringing a Lifelong Learning Institute to Penn State, and out of these parallel efforts a task force came together that included local retirees with university connections.

With assistance from the Lifelong Learning Institute Network at Road Scholar, the task force created a plan and proposed that the program come under the wing of Continuing Education. The director of Continuing Education, however, wanted to support but not “own” the program; the task force instead formed a 501(c)(3) organization and, in the spring of 1997 CALL launched with 62 members and nine courses. Sarah Anderson became the organization’s program director in 2001, and director in 2007.

CALL’s first application for an Osher Foundation grant in 2006 was rejected because the organization lacked a formal affiliation with Penn State. Sarah worked with Wayne Smutz, then dean for Continuing Education, to formalize the relationship. With this new affiliation, they reapplied for, and received, an Osher Foundation grant and, thus, CALL became OLLI at Penn State in 2007. 

In the 10 years since then, through a period during which Penn State conducted a thorough review of all affiliated organizations, OLLI has been drawn even more closely into the university’s orbit.  Encouraged by the Osher Foundation, which viewed this direction as a positive development, OLLI at Penn State dissolved its 501(c)(3) and became an official unit of Penn State Outreach and Online Education.  Despite this change, the OLLI remains very much a member-driven organization with a deep culture of volunteerism.  The board of directors that governed the organization as a non-profit organization was transformed into an advisory board and also a leadership council, comprising the chairs of approximately 10 operating committees.     

The nearly 1,300 members pay $50 for a full-year membership, and course fees based on the number of sessions range from $15 for a one-session course to $40 for courses with five or more sessions.  Members are well-educated and many are former professors, teachers or school administrators.  They’re a mix of longtime residents and others who have moved to the area in retirement, often because they have a Penn State connection.  Many “bleed blue and white” and are drawn to the university environment, the high level of collegiate sports, and a small-town feel that nevertheless attracts world-class cultural events.

What do you consider your major responsibilities at OLLI at Penn State?

My major responsibility is to carry out the mission of our organization — to be open and affordable to all who love to learn; to stay volunteer-driven; and to foster a welcoming and friendly environment where everyone feels comfortable to participate, make new friendships, and to have a lot of fun.  My duties day-to-day of course are very operational — managing the budget, staff, committees and overall operations. My staff and I are so busy that, most of the time, we have our noses glued to our computer screens. But I also get out into the community to broaden people’s awareness of lifelong learning and its importance to health.  We’re doing an “All About OLLI” event this week where I will give an overview of lifelong learning, the Osher Foundation, and about the history of our OLLI, but most of the presentation will be by members who will share their OLLI experiences.  I’m also meeting this week with a retirement community about establishing them as a satellite site.

How is your relationship with Penn State?             

Penn State is enormous and filled with so many resources we can tap into. Fortunately, my supervisor, who is Outreach’s interim director for Professional and Community Education, has a well-established relationship with most of the university’s associate deans and that is opening up so many doors for us.  We now have faculty approaching us to teach, and we’ve been able to tap into demonstrations of the most cutting-edge research going on here.  We’re also fortunate to have access to three classrooms in the Outreach building. 

What are some favorite courses you offer?

I immediately think of three.  Art Goldschmidt taught Middle East history at Penn State for 35 years and his courses are always popular; this semester he’s teaching “Cities of the Middle East” and “Cities of Muslim Africa.”  Rabbi David Ostrich has taught courses on religion and spirituality from all the great world traditions, and this semester is teaching “Ancient and New:  How Judaism has Evolved through the Ages.”  David Porter’s courses on American literature are perennial favorites.  Our Baby Boomer members are very busy and really prefer one- or two-session courses.  Some new courses in that format include “The Slinky Story:  It Started at Penn State” and “Acupuncture and the Aging Population.”

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

We’re moving slowly into distance learning via videoconferencing, and have already done programs with both the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service.  We participated last summer in the “Artful Connections” program with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and did a videoconference program called “People of the Earthlodge: Lifeways of the Hidatsa,” given by a park ranger from the Knife River Indian Village National Historic Site in North Dakota.  This spring we’re offering two live video conference courses at national parks:  “Grand Canyon National Park: The Human Story,” and “The Brown v. Board of Education Story,” where we’ll connect electronically with educators from the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas.  This course will feature a discussion, followed by a virtual tour of the historic site.

OLLI and LLI leaders need to recognize that we will need to continue to evolve and be innovative in order to compete for the time and dollars of active retirees.  This cohort will push the marketplace to create experiences that bring them joy and better health. Personally, I would like our OLLI to integrate our members more fully into campus life by providing access to gyms and libraries, and developing intergenerational experiences such as mentoring programs that provide a way for the generations to learn from, and better understand, one another.

I also think LLIs can get involved in helping older people retool for encore careers.  In Pennsylvania, for example, people with careers in the prison system have to retire at 57.  One man I met had decided to go to barber school and open up a barber shop upon his early retirement, and we could certainly help others not as strongly directed!  We can also train people to become more effective leaders in the not-for-profit world.

What did you do before you came to Penn State?

I’m originally from Northern Minnesota and I took my first job in continuing education at the University of Minnesota Duluth because tuition was free for university employees!  I worked there through my 20s and developed an understanding for the human service aspect of adult education by working as a program planner for continuing education, which included planning the Elderhostel programs run by the university and the development of its LLI program known as University for Seniors. I came to Penn State to get my MEd in adult education and left the workforce briefly when my children were very young.  When I started with CALL it was a young organization and there were lots of ways I could help.  It’s been a lot of fun to grow with the organization.

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

I dream of traveling to Greece.  I love the architecture, the food, the people … it looks beautiful, and I imagine it to be just like in Mamma Mia!

Tell me about a book you’ve read or podcast you’ve listened to that you would recommend to others?

I recommend Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk.  She has been so mocked and vilified by the public for years and it was very brave for her to tell her story. For most of us it would be unimaginable to have something we did that was so wrong, be broadcast world-wide, and also to go from a nobody to now someone everyone knows, but not for a good reason. I found her to be a very captivating and poised speaker. I now view her in a different light.