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Yale 62

A Short History of Lifelong Learning in Boise

Lifelong Learning at BSU

By Gary Richardson and Diane Ronayne

In the late-1990s, a Boise physician and his wife, adjunct faculty at Boise State University, wanted to establish “something between community education classes and a rigorous college curriculum for people over 50.” The idea found fertile ground at the university’s continuing education office where others also were nursing ideas about a program for adults eager to learn simply for the joy of learning.

At an informal meeting around the doctor’s dining table, ideas were exchanged and models from other universities were discussed. An advisory board was formed and a plan emerged: college-level short courses and a lecture series would be offered with BSU faculty doing most of the teaching. There’d be no college credits, and the price of classes would be low so that cost would not become barrier to participation. The program was called the Renaissance Institute.

BSU Continuing Education’s Ellie McKinnen, who had experience with Elder Hostel, was named program coordinator to find meeting space and recruit faculty willing to teach short courses. Board members were to find new members. A $700 grant from the Idaho Humanities Council provided a kitty to get the program underway. Friends of Ellie, we became Renaissance Institute members early on.

Since BSU classroom space was severely limited, there was no place on campus to meet. For several years, Renaissance Institute classes were held at The Flicks, Boise’s small, locally owned indy-, foreign- and art-film theater. Following the last class of a series, we’d take the teacher to lunch, where we could continue our discussions.

Five years into the program, our numbers were growing. BSU’s Dean of Continuing Ed steered Ellie to the Bernard Osher Foundation, which provides funding for programs like ours affiliated with colleges and universities across the U.S. We qualified for a major grant to develop the program, changing the name — as directed by the foundation — to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Boise State.

The foundation’s guidelines were followed as the program was built over several years. Eventually, having secured a couple of BSU classrooms and growing to 1,000 members, we qualified for an endowment. When we reached another membership milestone, the Osher Foundation made another contribution to the endowment, ensuring that the program will endure.

The pandemic took a heavy toll. Half the 2020 spring-semester programs were canceled. Membership dropped more than 40 percent. It has begun to recover. An upside of the pandemic was discovery of online Zoom technology, enabling presenters from anywhere to offer lectures and courses. As the pandemic danger lessened, local programs began to be offered in person in the classroom. Now, nearly all programs are available online live and recorded.

OLLI membership is $35 per semester. This semester we’ve had 51 two-hour lecture programs, which are free to members, and 28 course offerings. Course fees range from $25 for two two-hour sessions to $45 for four two-hour sessions. Members are encouraged to suggest presenters and topics. Five subject-area curriculum committees comprised of OLLI members assist in identifying and exploring potential courses and lecture programs.

To get a sense of the breadth of BSU’s Osher offerings, check the website: BSU 2024 Osher catalog

Below is a map showing the locations of the 125 OLLI programs across the country several of which have satellite classrooms as well.

Gary and Diane, who is on the BSU OLLI advisory board, will be available at our April 4th Y’62 Coffee Hour to answer your questions about our experience with the lifelong learning initiatives in Boise.


We welcome your comments below.

3 comments to A Short History of Lifelong Learning in Boise

  • Tim Hall

    This is a very impressive organization, Gary, and the process of starting and starting a new program, if there is not an existing one in your area, seems pretty straightforward. It sounds as if community support is a key factor. And I like the range of formats, with a lot of fairly short offerings — very flexible and convenient!

    Good work by you and Diane!

  • Burgert Roberts Roberts

    I quite agree with Tim Hall.
    Great work, Gary and Diane.
    Long live lifelong learning!

  • Charlie Valier

    This is Charlie Valier in St. Louis. I started lecturing at the Saint Louis Art Museum last fall and at Washington University this spring on the artist George Caleb Bingham. I will return this fall. My Washington U. Classes are part of the OLLI program. I find the program to be rigorous, particularly for the instructor who has to stand for almost two hours each time. Teaching late in life is a way to give back to our communities and keeps our minds sharp. I find older students want to be challenged.