Ohio Wesleyan's Lifelong Learning Institute gets older adults back in the classroom

Sheridan Hendrix
The Columbus Dispatch
Bob and Mary Holm are founding members of the Lifelong Learning Institute at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, which offers semester-long classes to adults ages 55 and over for a small fee.

Ohio Wesleyan University's Lifelong Learning Institute gives new meaning to the phrase "senior in college."

The Lifelong Learning Institute is a collaborative program between OWU and several Delaware community organizations that offers semester-long classes to adults ages 55 and up. 

In Ohio, all state colleges and universities offer those over age 60 the opportunity to attend classes at no cost, but some schools like Ohio Wesleyan offer their own specific programs to provide enhanced learning experiences to older adults, according to the Ohio Department of Higher Education

OWU's Lifelong Learning Institute got its start in 2018 as a solution to a problem faced by Maribeth Graham.

Graham, an OWU alumnus, had been living in Dayton for several years and loved taking advantage of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Dayton, also a private college. That program offers noncredit courses to adults over the age of 50.

But when Graham moved back to her old college stomping grounds in Delaware, she was disappointed in her search to find a new place to satisfy her desire to learn. 

"When I moved here, there were lots of things to do, but nothing took the place of having a lot of classes available for older adults," said Graham, 87.

So Graham reached out to Karen Crosman, who was the retired director of Foundation, Corporate and Governmental Relations at Ohio Wesleyan, to bounce the idea of starting a Lifelong Learning Institute at the university with her.

Crosman liked the idea and thought they could find some supporters in town. She reached out to SourcePoint, a nonprofit organization in Delaware County that caters to residents 55 and older, that had also been interested in starting a similar program. 

Bob and Mary Holm, two of the founding members of the Lifelong Learning Institute at Ohio Wesleyan University, say they love the program because it helps keep them engaged and connected.

As the ball got rolling, Ohio Wesleyan President Rock Jones said he wanted Bob and Mary Holm to chair the program. The Holms, both 1960 graduates of OWU, had been involved in the campus community for decades and Bob worked in university communications for 40 years. 

The group planned a Saturday morning mixer in May 2019 and invited anyone in the community interested in lifelong learning to attend. They expected a few dozen people to show up, but more than 300 people overflowed the Delaware coffee shop where they gathered.

"I was astounded to see so many people had an interest in learning," Graham said. 

The first semester of OWU's Lifelong Learning Institute took place in the fall of 2019 with funding from SourcePoint and the Delaware County Foundation. About 275 people signed up for the semester, with classes ranging in topics from classic films and cooking to physics and political science.

Students pay a $75 flat fee per semester to enroll in as many classes as they like. Classes take place all over campus and at several spots in Downtown Delaware and are taught by volunteers, including Ohio Wesleyan professors and local experts. There are no tests or exams, but plenty of students still take notes in class. 

"One gentleman commented that he wished the classes he was taking were this good when he was in college," said Bob Holm, 83. 

Part of the fun, though, was just being on campus. The Holms helped out before classes, directing students of the institute through campus and mixing with traditional students. They occasionally got to see their granddaughter on campus, who will graduate this May.

The fall term ended as a great success, they said, and the Holms left on a cruise vacation. They planned to be back on March 4, right before spring 2020 classes were set to begin on March 16. Instead, they were welcomed home just days before stay-at-home orders were put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

Last spring's semester of the Lifelong Learning Institute was cancelled, but like so many other pandemic college sessions, the program transitioned to Zoom classes for the 2020-21 academic year. 

The switch to online classes has had its advantages, said Mary Holm, 82. 

"We've had OWU alums sign up for classes from as far as California and Colorado," she said. "It's been wonderful to reach more people."

This semester, the Holms have a full schedule having signed up for all eight courses, including "Strangers in a Strange Land: Immigrants and Refugees," "How to Be an Antiracist – Part 2: Theory into Practice" and "How Does Your Garden Grow?".

It's been more than 60 years since Bob and Mary Holm graduated from Ohio Wesleyan, but walking through campus together still takes them back to the memories they shared as students. They've loved being able to attend classes online, but they're looking forward to being back on campus again this fall for the institute.

Crosman said the program has been a great way not only to engage the Delaware community, some of whom had never been to campus before, but also to encourage people to explore new topics.

"You’re coming together, you’re learning something new and making new friends," she said. "It's such a vibrant community."

Graham and the Holms all said that programs like the Lifelong Learning Institute are important because they keep the brain alive. Mary Holm has one woman she looks to as her learning role model.

"I knew a woman who lived to be 103, and she always said, 'Any day that I don’t learn something I know is going to be the end of my life.'" she said. "I want to continue to use my brain every day like her."