Gerontology PhD Students Switch Roles as OLLI Scholars Leading Classes

OLLI Scholar Cindy Bui with student Rhonda Holyoke.

OLLI Scholar Cindy Bui with student Rhonda Holyoke.

By Caitlin Connelly

Think of it as academic role reversal.

In these classes, students become the teachers. The classes are offered by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston, the state’s largest lifelong learning program for older adults. The instructors are PhD students studying gerontology at UMass Boston, known in these particular classrooms as OLLI Scholars.

Grad students have served as OLLI teachers for more than five years. This semester, UMass Boston Gerontology PhD students Emily Lim and Cindy Bui are the instructors of Popular Media, Apps and Communication, a course providing hands-on, interactive instruction on everything from hashtags to key phrases.

Fellow PhD student Natalie Shellito is leading a Beginner Yoga class. Shellito, a certified fitness instructor, guides her twelve students through a strengthening and relaxing yoga program over six weeks.

Natalie Shellito

Natalie Shellito leads a Beginner Yoga OLLI class.

Although the two classes are very different, the student-teachers share many of the same sentiments about their role reversal.

As odd as it sounds, Bui finds teaching to be “a good break from school.” She thinks of it as an opportunity to put aside her coursework for an hour and a half and just focus on her students.

Shellito likes the opportunity to gain practical experience working with other people. Besides, she said, “it’s very good for our minds to get away from classwork, homework, and readings.”

Jim Hermelbracht, the director of OLLI at UMass Boston, thinks the classes led by gerontology PhD students are a positive experience for everyone. “The knowledge and understanding graduate students are bringing into the classroom, especially their understanding about the population they’re teaching, adds a certain element of comfort and ease they promote while interacting with the students in their classroom,” he said.

Hermelbracht’s thoughts were echoed in the voices of OLLI students. Michael McCormick, an OLLI member for four years and now taking Beginning Yoga, said Shellito has “a really great understanding of what somebody who is a little bit older can do and should be doing.” Susan Cavanaugh is new to OLLI and, so far, has had a positive experience in the Popular Media, Apps, and Communication class. She said Bui and Lim foster, “an atmosphere of calmness and support”.

Gerontology OLLI scholars benefit from the relationship with students as well. Shellito has taught her yoga class for four semesters and seen many students return to her class after their first semester. To her, teaching can be an opportunity for “connecting with people in the community,” and “making new friendships.”

Lim and Bui also said making connections was one of the most valuable benefits of teaching at OLLI. “When you talk to students, they tell you about their lives as well,” said Lim. “You don’t just teach, you actually make friends.”

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