OLLI: Unique opportunities for lifelong learners

Who says education can't be exciting?

Who knew there is so much going on around us – in the air, under foot, even under the ground or under the sea? OLÉ! seeks to explore, to help adult learners keep on discovering and learning about all that is going on around them.

OLÉ! stands for “Opportunities for Lifelong Education.” Providing those opportunities is an expansive, wide-ranging goal, but I’ve found that OLE! does a super job of providing adventures for grabbing on to new knowledge.

Take for example the weekend of July 19 - 21. A group of about 20 of us spent those days at the Yukon Island Center for Research and Education. If that sounds at bit stuffy or musty, our experience was anything but.

First there was our boat ride from Homer across Kachemak Bay to Yukon Island. That Friday turned out to provide the choppiest seas seen in the bay all spring and summer.

“We will slog,” our taxi boat captain told us, and commented that the fishing charters had not ventured out that morning. Off we went, our boat rising up and slamming down, pounding over the white-capped waves. Once safely docked and breathing more easily, we discovered that the research and learning center is a glorious home rising tall above the beach – and up 50 wooden stairs. Yes, many of us counted them. Waiting to greet us, arms wide open and grinning effusively, was Gretchen Bersch, the center’s director and founder. We would know her as our warm-hearted hostess, full of abundant energy and good spirits. She has turned her family homestead and their beloved island into a setting for shared learning.

Our topic for this retreat was “Friends and Anemones: Focusing on Wellness and Nature.”

“Why did you come?” I asked one of my retreat companions.

“I thought it would be fun to meet new friends and meet some anemones,” Gail Ramsay told me, smiling. She was in a good place – we would meet plenty of both.

We spent the three days looking and listening, exploring and focusing on what was around us, stretching both mentally and physically. We trekked through the woods, following our guide, local naturalist Beth Trowbridge. With her knowledge, the woods became a kind of at-hand pharmacy, full of plants to help with various ailments.

“Obviously, the first inhabitants of this island couldn’t just hurry off to the local Walmart pharmacy,” she told us. Beth paused to point out plants on either side of the trail. “These are called ‘stop and go’ plants,” she commented. “One over here is a laxative, and the other over there can be used for diarrhea relief.”

I decided I’d better not try this, since I didn’t get the plants’ real names and might get them reversed.

More environmental exploration happened along the beaches. If you waited for the very lowest tides, you could walk right out to Elephant Rock and discover beaches full of marine life at its feet, unveiled once the water withdrew. We were up very early Sunday morning to hike out to the rock, taking advantage of that low tide.

We found all sizes and sorts of starfish, jellyfish, barnacles, kelp and seaweed – even the anemones Gail had hoped to meet. Lifelong learner Helen Peters scrambled around and over the rocks, finding tide pools, then stood still in awe.

“Isn’t it marvelous – the workings of the ocean,” she reflected.

The island is also an outstanding archeological site, with startling discoveries underground. For many summers, archeologists have come from all over the world to dig, find artifacts and record their findings.

Gretchen led us to one of these sites, a house pit perhaps 12 feet deep. We stood on the edge of the pit, marveling at what had been discovered and unearthed beneath us.

“There is much debate over which Native peoples lived here and when,” Gretchen told us. Pointing to the bottom of the pit, she added, “We think the hearths you see here – piles of stones – may date back to 500 BC.”

Researchers come every summer to continue digging.

Wellness instructor Jean Marcey helped us focus on what nature can mean to us, in the world around and above us.

“What can you hear?” she asked. Then she sent us off to spend 10 minutes in focused listening, drawing what she called a sound map. I had hoped to hear something definitive and distinct – a bird tweet, a plane roar. But there was just silence. I listened some more and began to hear subtleties in the different sounds of the waves in the ocean, the pebbles rattling as they tumbled by the shore, the different sounds the leaves made as the winds varied or became almost still.

We had stretched our learning, stretched our awareness, and Jean also helped us stretch our bodies.

“Gentle exercises,” she called Saturday morning’s activity out on the deck. She gave each of us a FitKit and instructed us in the use of the resistance tube it contained. Now we discovered new muscles, ones we didn’t even know we had. Most of us were quite pleased with ourselves.

Learning together

This OLÉ! retreat weekend nicely exemplifies what OLÉ! is all about. Minds become reactivated, sparked by discoveries, shared with others. This was an OLÉ! field trip, a sort of special event.

Its website describes OLÉ! as “a place for Anchorage adults to continue learning together.” Typically, that happens in classes held from September into April, designed for adults age 50 and over. There are three regular terms: an eight-week fall term between September and Thanksgiving; an eight-week term from January to early March; and a four-week term during April. Classes are held on the UAA campus (on Fridays when parking is free and easy), at the Alaska Heritage Museum and at the UAF Cooperative Extension Service.

Board member Elaine Estey explains that the cost for an annual enrollment – all three terms – is $150.

“You can take as many classes during those three terms as you would like or your time allows,” she says. “We offer up to 20 classes a term, and some of them fill up fast. OLE! is six years old. We started with an enrollment of 100; now we are up to 275, up 50 members from the previous year.”

If you’d like to take part in OLÉ!, get your membership soon. Class listings should be out at the end of August. Classes range from arts and sciences, to travel, history, nature studies and social concerns. The OLÉ! website will have specific information at http://www.oleanchorage.org or you can call Marci Johnson, the registrar (and only paid employee) at 786-6304.

Gretchen, OLÉ! board president, emphasizes, “We are willing learners, happy to be there, full of questions, interested. And there are no papers, no homework, no tests.”

Fall learning in Fairbanks

OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is a membership organization (with more than 800 members) providing learning opportunities for adults age 50 and older in the Fairbanks area. Led by its membership, OLLI offers courses, lectures, educational travel and special interest groups.

Members explore academic and general interest classes in a variety of categories, in an atmosphere that is intellectually stimulating, but without the stress of tests and grades.

Fall classes begin Sept. 9. Registration is underway now and the class catalog and schedule is on the website, http://www.uaf.edu/olli.

Early registration is recommended as classes do fill up.