In recent weeks, hundreds of older adults are realizing that social distancing does not have to mean social isolation, as they continue their studies and interpersonal connections with help from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).

For 33 years, this learning-in-retirement program has served more than 15,000 older adults in Chico and surrounding communities. The “glue” that holds OLLI together is the strong sense of community among members who range in age from 50 to 99; a community centered around in-person classes, meetings, and social events—until COVID-19 erupted, said Ann Nikolai, OLLI program director.

In June, OLLI launched its first virtual summer term at Chico State as a combination of live-online classes, webinars, and pre-recorded presentations.

“We never imagined the need to factor social distancing into our programming plan,” she said. “The learning curve for transitioning existing classes into an entirely new format was very steep for a group of people with little to no experience in distance education.”

A Zoom screen shows dozens of people participating in a presentation on "The West Coast Trail: The Hike of a Lifetime"
By connecting virtually via Zoom, older adults who may have limited social interaction during the pandemic, are able to have meaningful and thought-provoking discussions, learning from their instructors and one another.

But in the face of unprecedented change, OLLI members like Sydney Wilde have wholly embraced it.

“I don’t consider myself a technological person,” said Wilde, an OLLI member since 2010. “But the thought of being totally disconnected from the OLLI community motivated me to learn. Fast.”

To date, more than 50 classes have been offered—some recorded, some live, while other members are joining online groups, like the OLLI Chico Hikers, or offline clubs, like the drawing and cartooning clubs in which art is shared by email. Pamela Beeman-Rabut, an OLLI member since 2015, can’t sit still for an online lecture, so she’s joined an OLLI Facebook group with 63 other members who also love the outdoors.

“I keep the OLLI tab open on my laptop, having earmarked several lectures that are intriguing, like Dr. Len Matheson’s class on Brain Health & Fitness,” Beeman-Rabut said. “But to be honest, I’m spending a lot of time outdoors. I’m finding it really hard to sit still, and I appreciate the posts from other OLLI hikers, who’ve got great ideas about trails and other destinations that are perfect under the current circumstances.”

Two individuals stare up into the trees while on a dirt path of a riparian area.
OLLI hike leaders Wendy Pine and Vickie Stoll look for birds during a meetup at the Rio Vista Unit along the Sacramento River. (Photo courtesy of Lorraine Smith)

Dr. Len Matheson, who is new to Chico, offered his first class for OLLI earlier this spring, when in-person meetings were the norm. But, as social distancing orders went into effect, he was inspired to try something new.

“I realized my subject matter might be relevant to a broader audience, and that video conferencing technology could deliver in ways that in-person meetings could not,” he said.

Matheson has since recorded five lectures in his brain series, and he has already submitted a proposal for the OLLI virtual fall term.

“Watching other members dive in has been encouraging,” he said. “It also makes me greatly appreciate what a wonderful resource Chico State is to this community. We moved here from St. Louis, which has very strong private universities that, speaking as a longtime faculty member of one of those, just don’t make themselves as available as they could. OLLI at CSU, Chico is an example of how public universities can lead the way in community development, public health, literacy, and extracurricular education, all of which contribute to a widespread and growing quality of life that we all share.”

OLLI member Leanne Ulvang was invited to share her experience with other, new online learners in an advice video, and she summed it up in a way that has come to define OLLI’s response to a crisis.

“Cultivating curiosity lets me experience the exhilaration of this roller coaster ride that we’re all on,” she said. “Join me in this quest to continue learning, however we can make it happen.”

Ulvang, who has recorded 15 lectures and conducted more than a dozen live online classes (in French!) captures the spirit of this 1,000-member group and the power of the OLLI community.

“There is no way we could have accomplished so much without a burning desire to stay connected,” said Nikolai. “The entire experience has been both exhilarating and completely exhausting. Our lifelong learners’ resolve won out in the end, and we’re experiencing that ‘runner’s high’ you sometimes hear endurance athletes talk about.”

A collaged artwork is made up of former sewing patterns and templates.
Volunteer instructor Debbie Vermette creates collages at home now and shares written instructions, with pictures, online.

OLLI has also discovered a very valuable tool—online learning—that Nikolai and her team plan to continue using on some level post-pandemic.

“We are reconnecting with people now who left OLLI for health reasons or lack of transportation,” she said. “With distance education, we can reach people who are otherwise left out.”

With the summer term winding down, OLLI remains in virtual mode. Building on the lessons and new skills learned, Nikolai and her team are putting together a new fall schedule of live-online classes that allow members to interact with instructors and other members, maintaining the social engagement to which they’re accustomed, even in a virtual learning environment.

Visit the OLLI website to view the fall class schedule, available August 1. Class registration opens Aug. 27.