An older couple walks hand-in-hand on Pitt's campus
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Pitt’s OLLI program inspires lifelong learning

  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Our City/Our Campus
  • Teaching & Learning
  • Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

In the heart of Oakland, amid the bustle of 20-somethings at the University of Pittsburgh, you’ll find a unique community of learners that looks a little different than the average Pitt student.

Among them, you’ll find the McAfoos, Helen and Robert, who moved from Forest Hills to Oakland nearly eight years ago just so they could be closer to Pitt’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) — an educational and social program for adults over 50 taught by current and retired faculty members.

OLLI helps these eternal students keep their minds sharp, enables them to interact with curious peers and fosters connections that extend beyond the classroom.

“The benefits are both personal, for your own enrichment, learning about things that maybe you never got a chance to learn before. ... But it’s also social. There’s a connection between like-minded people who are still curious about life and still want to learn and engage with other people,” said OLLI Director Lisa Sharfstein.

Since OLLI was established in 2005, thousands of older adults have participated in the institute’s programs. With its current membership at 1,300, students can select from more than 350 courses a year and local one-time lectures and events. OLLI also offers financial assistance and scholarships to help reduce the barrier to joining.

And there are no grades.

“There’s no stress, there’s no pressure, there’s no grades, there’s no credits. The program exists for people who love to learn,” Sharfstein said.

The McAfoos: From STEM to liberal arts

The McAfoos’ academic pursuits before OLLI were primarily grounded in more mathematical fields; Helen holds a degree in agricultural economics, while Robert is a seasoned mechanical engineer.

“Our careers were very technical. We never had the time for things like literature, history and the arts,” Robert said. But as the couple delved into OLLI courses more than a dozen years ago, they realized the profound impact of embracing subjects they hadn't explored before. “It’s given us new perspectives on all kinds of things, not just academics,” he said.

What sets OLLI apart, they say, is the diversity of its instructors, who are current and former Pitt faculty and teach a wide range of subjects like music, economics and dance.

“We’ve had marvelous instructors, terrific classes,” Helen said. “Some of them are really outstanding.”

The McAfoos particularly appreciated the unique perspective of Rebecca Denova, a senior lecturer emeritus of religious studies in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, who teaches on the history and origins of Christianity and the development of religious thought in the ancient world.

Denova said she and the hundreds of OLLI participants she’s taught are highly engaged inside and outside the classroom, and “it’s just a treat” to teach them.

“We have fun,” Denova said. “I can make jokes. I can use lines from ‘The Godfather.’ My undergraduate students have never seen ‘The Godfather.’”

The Newmans: It’s not just the classes

Linda and Fred Newman’s OLLI journey began seven years ago when they moved to Pittsburgh from North Carolina. Their initial plan was to sign up for just one semester, but after taking two classes and enjoying them immensely, they decided to extend their OLLI experience.

“And now we take six to eight base classes,” ranging from history to improv, Linda said. 

The variety of topics OLLI offers keeps the couple engaged, and they’ve even taken field trips to enhance their learning experience. They said they appreciated how instructors valued their contributions and the ways in which teaching older adults could be different from traditional classes.

The varied backgrounds and experiences of other students is also a big draw, the couple said.

“We’re interacting with folks who have similar interests within the classroom,” said Fred, who added that OLLI has made Pittsburgh feel like home for he and his wife, who initially knew no one in the area.

Sharfstein said her vision for OLLI’s future includes an emphasis on intergenerational learning. Members can already audit University of Pittsburgh classes to engage with undergraduate students, share wisdom and participate in academic discourse.

Want to join OLLI?

A Dec. 8 open house will provide prospective members with information about the program. See more upcoming OLLI events. For more information on OLLI programs or to sign up for courses, visit Pitt’s official OLLI site.


— Donovan Harrell, photography of the Newmans by Aimee Obidzinski