Jim Hermelbracht is the new director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston. Recently, Hermelbracht talked about why he was drawn to the job and explained his initial priorities at OLLI. He also discussed his roots in the Midwest and a career in higher education. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
What attracted you to the position of director of OLLI at UMass Boston?
I’ve been in higher education for 20 years now. I like what higher education is about in terms of providing opportunities for all students to really explore their interests and gain valuable experiences in their personal and professional development. So when I looked at OLLI and found it served a different student population than what I am used to working with — ages 18 to 22 — it intrigued me. The whole concept of lifelong learning is something I think we try to instill in undergraduate students, that learning never ends. I found the opportunity to help students, in this case older students, continue that exploration to be very appealing. It’s going to be a new and different challenge.
You had some experience with OLLI members who were involved in the search for a new director. What were your impressions?
A few members have already reached out via email to introduce themselves to me. I get the sense of passion and dedication these volunteers and members have toward OLLI and its mission. That excites me. It makes my job easier but it also makes my job more interesting and fun. It makes me curious about how I can help them develop and sustain that drive to provide opportunities for the other members they are serving. They are really serving their peers and there’s something to be admired about people who want to take that time.
What are your priorities coming to this new position?
I have three priorities for myself over my first six to 12 months here. First, I really look forward to getting to know the OLLI staff. I enjoyed my Stonehill staff and I know this staff is going to teach me a lot at about OLLI and UMass. Another priority is to really understand the workings of the board and how I can best support its members. I want to learn more about what makes them tick, what makes them want to do the jobs they’re doing for OLLI. And basically, just seeing OLLI at work. Taking the time to see a whole year of how OLLI operates will be critical. I know it’s going to be a lot to take in. But that’s a great challenge and I’m looking forward to it.
What were you doing in your most recent previous position?
At Stonehill College, I worked with a small committee to explore the creation of a leadership development program on campus. The uniqueness of our program was to offer it to students who had not become involved in a club or organization. Perhaps they didn’t have time to really devote to being a campus leader but they still wanted to learn more about leadership. When you’re a club leader or a leader on campus, you get a lot of individual training. But leadership development is important for all students and anybody can be a leader. It’s not tied to position, it’s really tied to your character and your ability to build relationships. The skills are really important as students leave their undergraduate experience and go toward their careers.
You were raised in an environment very different from Boston, growing up on a family farm in Nebraska. What was that like?
We lived five miles outside the nearest town, which had a population of 500. There were 18 people in my graduating high school class. There’s a sense of peace and accomplishment with the work you do on a farm. Even as a small child, you’re given chores. My first ones were feeding the chickens and gathering the eggs. So you learn early about responsibility but also it was fun. I don’t get up to the family farm much anymore, my brother now runs it. But it’s always a point of pride for me. I like to tell the stories about growing up on the farm and look forward to sharing them with people I meet at OLLI.
Did you think about being a farmer as you became older?
Growing up, naturally there was this inclination to become a farmer. My father passed away when I was 10 years old, I don’t know if that was part of the rationale for rethinking it. But that’s when I started to wonder if farming was for me. I actually became interested in banking and worked at the local bank in our small town. I went into college pursuing accounting and business.
So how did you end up in higher education administration?
I became involved in campus activities, clubs and organizations, as an undergraduate. That got me interested in a national organization for campus activities, which depended upon volunteers to run it. I remember in my senior year, I left my last regional conference and I was emotional. I broke down in tears and wondered why I was so attached to this experience. It got me thinking about where my passion belonged. Some of my mentors were directors of student activities and one asked me, “Did you ever consider doing this? I think you’d be really good at helping other students.” So I thought about a master’s degree in higher education administration. I found a program at Ball State in Indiana and did two years of graduate work there. That’s how I got my start.
Work has taken you to a number of different campuses around the country, in Nebraska, Illinois, Connecticut and, of course, Massachusetts.
One place I worked was New Britain, Conn. From there I moved back to Nebraska, but I always missed New England. When I was ready to leave Nebraska again, I wanted to come back. I was drawn to it and Boston was the focus. If I wanted to work at a different college, hopefully I could easily find one in greater Boston. That was how I connected with Stonehill.
Do you feel settled now?
I came to Roslindale from Nebraska and have lived in the same apartment for the last 10 years. I’ve found a connection in the Roslindale community, it’s a great neighborhood and I’ve made some good friends there. My 10 years at Stonehill is the longest time I’ve been at a job and I wasn’t ready to leave Boston. I’ve put down roots.
OLLI’s fall semesters is about to get underway. What kind of classes would interest you most as a student?
I enjoy history, especially involving places where I live. Also anything with art appreciation would definitely be something I’d like to dive into. Literature would be fun too as that was one of my undergraduate majors.