HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WHLT) – For those interested in pursuing education for a lifetime, the University of Southern Mississippi has a program that fits the bill. 

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at USM is one of 125 such programs nationwide. It is the only lifelong learning institute in Mississippi supported by The Bernard Osher Foundation. It is a member-led, member-driven organization. Members can provide direction to the institute for future development and even curriculum. 

For OLLI Director Paula Mathis, OLLI offers continuing education year-round. It offers members many benefits from the college experience without traditional drawbacks like college loans and late-night studying. 

“OLLI members learn for the sheer joy of learning – no tests or grades,” Mathis said in a USM press release. “It provides opportunities for members to learn, exercise, travel, develop meaningful friendships, discover new interests and passions and much more.”

History of OLLI

Mathis has served as OLLI Director for the past five years after working in the USM Honors College for nearly 20 years. What is now known as OLLI began more than 32 years ago in 1991. 

Sue Pace, then Director of Continuing Education, submitted a formal concept paper to then-USM President Aubrey K. Lucas proposing the formation of an Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR). Such programs were becoming popular in communities nationwide. 

In May 1991, about 130 people attended an organizational meeting to establish USM’s ILR. Beginning in the fall of 2005, the Bernard Osher Foundation provided the institute with $100,000 annually, through 2007. ILR then became OLLI at USM. 

After meeting the requirements of the Osher Foundation, OLLI was awarded a $1 million endowment and an additional $50,000 bridge grant to provide support until earnings from the endowment became available. In January 2015, OLLI expanded its outreach and implemented a second institute on USM’s Gulf Park campus in Long Beach.

OLLI today

There are about 715 members across both campuses. Courses offered discuss a variety of subjects, including arts, health and fitness, humanities, literature, science, technology and more. Mathis and her team rely on USM faculty and staff to assist with course instruction, as well as many Honors College graduates. Current OLLI members may also teach classes.

The OLLI experience is not just relegated to classrooms, PowerPoint presentations, and exercise classes. Each fall the institute offers a domestic travel opportunity, followed by an international adventure every spring. Approximately 30 members have signed up for a cruise to Belgium and Holland next year.

In Hattiesburg, OLLI classes and related programming are held at the Peck House, a stately mid-20th-century home at the corner of Pearl Street and 37th Avenue. Built by oil exploration and distribution entrepreneur Carl Peck, the house boasts Italian marble, art fixtures, Waverly wallpaper and what is believed to be the first electric garage door in the southeastern U.S. The Peck family donated the home and grounds to USM in 1989.

For those wanting to get involved in the experience, Mathis said in the USM press release that you do not have to wait until your golden years to join OLLI.

“In the past, I would have called OLLI a thriving community of lifelong learners in the 50-plus age group,” said Mathis. “However, we don’t card folks who want to join, and we don’t discriminate. We won’t tell if you’re not yet 50.”

To learn more about USM’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, call 601.266.6554 in Hattiesburg, 228.214.3277 in Long Beach or visit: https://www.usm.edu/lifelong-learning/.