The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston, begun as Life Enrichment Through Studies, celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2024

When they signed up for their first adult education classes at UMass Boston in 1999, Rita Wolfson and Arlene Wolk hoped for a little intellectual stimulation along with the chance to meet new people. They had each raised kids and reached the point in life when making friends isn’t always easy. Their 25 years of membership in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, or OLLI, at UMass Boston, has given them far more than they had hoped for.  The two women became instant and dear friends that first year. Their years of taking classes and socializing with others have made them better parents and are helping them live longer, healthier lives, they say.

UMass Boston launched its lifelong learning program as LETS, or Life Enrichment Through Studies. The brainchild of Frank Caro, former director of the university’s Gerontology Institute and chair of the Department of Gerontology, the program began in 1999 with 13 class offerings and four brown-bag presentations in its first semester. Wolk and Wolfson were among the first 147 students who paid $75 for an annual membership. They’ve watched the program grow and change over the years, most notably in 2005 when the national Bernard Osher Foundation accepted the program into its national network of lifelong learning programs based at university campuses. Renamed OLLI at UMass Boston, the program gained funding to support professional staff and further grow its membership base. Today OLLI is an inclusive community of 700-plus members offering more than 200 learning opportunities annually through courses, presentations, and special events for people aged 50 and older. The program has had two directors—Wichian Rojanawon, who launched LETS, and James Hermelbracht, the current director who took over the program in 2017.

“I was a late learner, I had enrolled at UMass Boston and graduated in 1992, that’s how they found me,” Wolfson says of being recruited for the new program. “I received a letter from LETS inviting me to take a boat tour of Boston Harbor with a free box lunch. The free lunch is what intrigued me,” she laughs. “I remember saying to my younger daughter, ‘I don’t know, I’m getting older and it doesn’t seem like I’m accomplishing too much,’ and then the letter came.” After the boat tour, the passengers were invited to a campus auditorium to hear Rojanawon describe his plans for the program.

Similarly, Wolk was recruited to join LETS after completing the Manning gerontology certificate program at UMass Boston. Her late husband, Milton, was recruited to teach in LETS as a retired college professor. Wolk was working part-time but liked the idea of continuing to learn and trying something new. “Milton was really excited about teaching, about trying something new,” she says. “I liked the opportunity to meet new people. That’s difficult to do sometimes when you get older.”

The women met as unwitting recruits at the first LETS board of directors meeting. They quickly embraced the work and befriended each other. The two even learned that they had grown up near each other in Roxbury. “We met as total strangers 25 years ago, and we became classmates and friends and have talked on the telephone for all these years,” Wolfson says. Agrees Wolk, “Good friends.”

Talking about highlights of the program’s early days, Wolk and Wolfson fill in each other’s memory of dates and names. “Arlene and I, we took so many classes together,” Wolfson remembers, from computers to cooking, the arts, and more. “We would get the next semester’s catalog and she and I would be on the telephone discussing them.”

The courses involved plenty of discussion and, to their delight, no homework. “It was fun. We would go down to the cafeteria after class and have these wonderful conversations, depending on the course we had left,” Wolk says. “Friendships began to bloom. We became like family through the years.”

Among Wolfson’s favorite classes were a series of Tuesday morning classes taught over 15 years by Sharon Carey about theater, playwrights, directors, and actors. “Every summer she would pick a new director or producer and do research the entire summer,” she remembers. “I termed it ‘Tuesdays with Sharon.’ She knew everything; we would sit there in awe. She always had little tidbits to share that you’d never read in the newspapers. She actually played to a standing-room only crowd because there were always students standing in the back of the room.”

About six fellow students would go to lunch afterwards. “Riding home on the bus, it would take me an hour and a half each way to UMass, I was so invigorated,” she says. OLLI classes “made my day, it made my week.”

OLLI classes opened her world, Wolk says. She took a class on short stories taught by Ned Martin. “That was a good one. He taught me to appreciate short stories and what we could get out of them.” She also took a class on opera, “even though I didn’t think I had any interest in it. But the class opened my mind. We had a lovely teacher, she brought opera down to everyone’s level.”

The women have attended classes on the UMass Boston campus and off site, from libraries in Braintree and Hingham to the Mount Ida College campus in Newton. These days it’s not as easy for them to get around so they appreciate the online offerings. OLLI developed Zoom classes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to offer them now as an option along with in-person classes. “Online classes have been a blessing,” says Wolfson. “You miss the socializing, but we’ve kept up with our OLLI friends.”

The two friends credit their OLLI experience with positive changes in their lives. “My girls would say that when I started to take classes I became a better mother,” Wolfson says. “Arlene and I were talking a while ago about LETS and OLLI. She said something that’s probably very true, that this school has contributed to our longevity.”

“Taking classes gave me an opportunity to go to campus and concentrate and enjoy everything, and then come home rejuvenated,” she says. “Very true,” Wolk adds.

“Every semester I look forward to coming back and seeing friends. It kind of felt like going to a bar mitzvah when we’d come back from semester breaks, the way we would greet each other,” Wolfson laughs. “I’ve enjoyed life more because of my association with OLLI and the people I’ve met.”

Read more: Wichian Rojanawon, founder of OLLI at UMass Boston, looks back on his career in lifelong learning