LLI Spotlight: Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), Fathia Hardy, Associate Director, College of Professional and Continuing Studies (CPCS)

By Peter Spiers

OLLI at The University of Alabama in Huntsville was founded in 1993 as the Academy for Lifelong Learning at UAH to serve a populace retired from institutions including the University, NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, or Redstone Arsenal and other area businesses, schools and organizations. In 2005, the Academy received an Osher Foundation endowment grant and became an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Now OLLI at UAH serves a diverse membership base that includes retired teachers, military, business people, scientists and university faculty and staff to name a few. Huntsville’s low cost of living, reputation as a “small town with a big city feel,” Broadway Theater League and other recreational resources have made it a desirable retirement destination, fueling the institute’s continued growth. OLLI at UAH now boasts 1,100 members who pay an annual membership fee of $25 and a $99 fee per term for up to three classes (and $15 for each additional class). The Institute is under the general direction of UAH’s College of Professional and Continuing Studies, and supervised by Fathia Hardy, the College’s Associate Director.

What do you consider your major responsibilities with OLLI at UAH?
I have two major responsibilities. First, I serve as liaison between OLLI and the University, especially with the Dean of the College of Professional and Continuing Studies, to whom I report. Second, I oversee daily operations. Fortunately two paid staff, an OLLI Program Manager and an OLLI Program Coordinator, support me. Like most lifelong learning institutes, an amazing group of volunteers carries much of the leadership burden. Our governance includes a board of directors and a hard-working executive committee that includes OLLI at UAH’s president, immediate past president, secretary, treasurer, and the vice presidents of the administration and finance and curriculum. We also have a diverse set of other committees responsible for activities including membership, volunteers, travel, social, public relations and fundraising.

How does curriculum development work? What are some favorite courses you offer?
The curriculum committee includes “discipline” chairs responsible for curriculum development in subject areas like finance and economics; arts and letters; foreign language; leisure and nature; natural resources; history and government; skills and hobbies; health and fitness; science, math, and engineering; psychology, philosophy, and religion and information technology. The curriculum committee also develops our Friday “Weekly Bonus” educational program, open to all OLLI members. The “Weekly Bonus” programming is very popular, and ranges from members giving a slide show of their recent travels to an attorney presenting a mock U.S. Supreme Court oral argument. Term courses develop in both “top down” and “bottom up” ways. For example, our OLLI board members may provide suggestions for new courses, or our OLLI membership may request a specific course. We strive for about 60 to 70 classes each term and have not had a problem reaching that number. Instructors come from all parts of our community, including retired university faculty, members teaching courses based on their careers or personal passions, and certified experts for classes like yoga. The curriculum committee works with new instructors to help them prepare and reviews evaluations with all instructors to help them improve. We have several instructors who have been with us for years and who have a strong following with our members; in fact, we are celebrating our 25th anniversary this year by recognizing the 12 instructors who have taught 25 or more classes. Some of our perennially popular classes include Writing Your Life Story, Pencil Sketching, and Rumble Strips, a course where current real world issues are viewed and discussed in a non-judgmental environment.

Are there other LLIs you network with or have learned from?
Our closest collaboration is with the OLLI at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. We try to get together with them periodically to share ideas on how to enhance our programs.
Recently, we hosted the 2018 Southern Regional Conference for Learning in Retirement which featured sessions by lifelong learning faculty, staff, and volunteers from North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina, South Florida, UA, USM, Duke University, Auburn University, Clemson University, Emory University, Hampton University, UNLV, UK, KSU and more!

What is your major longer-term or strategic focus?
We are growing more quickly than anticipated and space is an issue--classes are getting larger and there are more of them! The university itself has grown enrollment from seven to ten thousand just in the last three or four years, so there is competition for classroom space all around. So far, we have managed mostly by juggling and being creative and have avoided taking classes off campus except where it is necessary, for example, pickle ball or ballroom dancing. We have OLLI-designated space in the CPCS building, but we may eventually need our own building. Parking is also an issue. We share our lot with the College of Business building, a hotel, and a residence hall, and a new incubator building for entrepreneurs is going up right next to it. Fortunately, the university recently purchased additional land across the street, and we are able to use it for parking. A zoned parking system was recently implemented and that seems to be working.

What did you do before you came to OLLI at UAH?
I graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a B.A. in Communications and a Public Relations certificate, with a focus in marketing and event planning. I am originally from Alabama and came back after college. I started working at the university a little over 5 years ago, originally in event scheduling in student affairs. I moved over to CPCS to work on scheduling conferences and began assisting with social events at OLLI, stepping in when needed after the previous Program Manager became ill. I began my leadership role last August. Along the way, I have earned an MBA in Management from the university.

Where would you most like to travel to that you haven’t visited already?
I would love to go to Greece and Italy! I am interested in seeing the architecture, experiencing the culture, and eating the food. However, with two little ones, nine and two years old, that probably will not be anytime soon.
Tell me about a book you’ve read or podcast you’ve listened to that you would recommend to others.
I am reading “Becoming” by Michelle Obama; I am a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and got the book in the monthly Ivy box sent to members. I love how open she is as she tells her story from the beginning and how she became who she is now; their love story is amazing to me. It is inspiring to see unconditional love is still possible.