Wichian Rojanawon launched a new lifelong learning program at the University of Massachusetts Boston with modest resources in 1999. Now the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston is the largest among many lifelong learning programs in the state. But the spring semester underway will be his last as director of the program that is part of the Gerontology Institute at the McCormack Graduate School. Wichian, who plans to retire as director this summer, recently talked with the Gerontology Institute Blog about his lifelong learning experience at UMass. This is an edited version of the conversation.
How did the lifelong learning program first get off the ground at UMass?
At the time it was called LETS, Life Enrichment Through Studies. I started the program with two volunteers and $3,000 — a small grant from the university endowment fund. This was the idea of Frank Caro, the former director of the Gerontology Institute. He asked me to explore what was going on in the lifelong learning area. A lot of programs had been launched in the 1980s and ‘90s and there were about 300 of them by 1999. So a lot of other universities got started ahead of us.
What did you offer in the beginning?
First semester, we had 12 classes and four brown bag presentations. We only had 90 members at the time. It was just word of mouth, people joined even though we offered so little.
And how does the program look this semester?
Now we have nearly 1,200 members. We offer 70 courses and about 50 brown bag lectures per semester – plus other activities. There are day trips, overnight trips, international trips. We also have 10 special interest groups that meet outside the classroom monthly and have their own leaders but coordinate with us. That includes things like photography, meditation, writing and Stonewall at OLLI, the first and only LGBT group within the life-learning program.
Where does the program’s membership come from?
Our members live in more than 80 different cities and towns in Massachusetts. About 60 percent live in Boston and another 30 percent come from the South Shore. The other 10 percent is all over, as far away as Reading and all the way down to Cape Cod. They drive here and make a day of it.
What have been the most popular class subjects over time?
History, literature, politics. Combinations of in-class presentations and field trips are also very popular. We have classes called Exploring Boston Harbor and the Islands. They meet in class for two sessions and for the rest of the course they go to different islands in the harbor. Another class on building Boston’s Back Bay is also a popular combination of classroom and field trips.
How has membership interests changed over the years?
I would say they’ve been pretty consistent, but over the past few years I’ve noted they’re more interested in technology related courses. That’s why I organized a one-day social media day. Other courses like digital photography also fill up quickly. We do offer a few courses on things like Microsoft Word and Excel, Facebook and genealogy online.
How did the program expand over time?
After starting with 90 members, we grew to about 300 by 2005. By then we contacted the Osher Foundation (which supports Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs) to request their financial support. At first we were rejected because, locally, they had already accepted programs at Brandeis, Tufts and Harvard. But Harvard changed its mind and there was an opportunity for us. If you got accepted into the network you got $100,000 per year and if your membership reached 500 after that period, you got a $1 million endowment. If your membership reached 1,000, you got another $1 million. We reached 1,000 members in 2012 and we got a $2 million endowment
.How did the Osher Foundation support help you grow the program at UMass and its membership?
The big thing was that we were able to hire a paid staff. When we started, we used all volunteers. With the funding from Osher, we were able to hire a program coordinator, project manager, an office manager. We needed them to get bigger and run efficiently. The support also helped us afford videoconferencing equipment to expand to satellite locations where classes are offered at public libraries in Braintree and Hingham. That’s why nearly a third of our membership comes from the South Shore now.
How did video conference classes become such a big part of the program?
Our original location was in Plymouth and we also tried a small one on Nantucket. But we moved to the Hingham Public Library later and then added Braintree. For us, it’s a way to expand our courses but for the people who attend it’s a convenience. In the beginning people said they didn’t like it. But as technology improved, that changed. Now we’re all HD. The picture is much clearer, brighter. The sound is much better. Now it’s like being there. We also tape the classes, so if you miss one you can go to our website and watch it.
How did you find teachers over the years?
In the beginning it was difficult. Anyone we knew doing something interesting, we approached them. But at the start we didn’t have that many members so we didn’t need a lot of classes. As our membership increased, we started a curriculum committee comprised of members who wanted to help. They’re the ones looking for interesting people now. In the early years, we had contact with some retired faculty. Now most instructors are members themselves. We live in an area with a lot of intelligent people and they’re interested in sharing their knowledge.
You’ve taken classes yourself over the years. What were some of your personal favorites?
We used to have a class in classical music. I like to learn something I have had no experience with. I love music but I didn’t know much about classical. Also, there was a class about eating and drinking in Boston from the 1880s to the present. We learned about food history. Another one showed foreign films that were hard to find. It had a big following. Another was called Elder Quest, a film series looking at movies that had aging themes in them, from 1950 to the present.
How would you describe your experience running the lifelong learning program at UMass?
I think it’s rewarding, to feel you’ve built something people can enjoy and, at the same time, they can be informed about what’s going on. We provide them an opportunity they might not have had when they were younger and working. This kind of program will be around a long time. Demographics are on our side — there are more older people in the area. We just capture a small portion of all the people who are looking for something fun and educational to do.