Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

New OLLI director champions lifelong learning

Karen Asenavage Loptes UD OLLI Director
Karen Asenavage Loptes is UD’s new Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) director (center).

A conversation with new UD OLLI director Karen Asenavage Loptes

Championing lifelong learning and the importance of sustained connection and engagement at every age of life

As the new director of the University of Delaware’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) program for adults age 50-plus, Karen Asenavage Loptes arrives to the role from a diverse career in international and higher education, including more than 12 years at UD’s English Language Institute (ELI) as associate director and director of academic programs.

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From the start, she was enthusiastic about the opportunity to combine her interests in education, lifelong learning, volunteerism and community engagement. Her first week featured a whirlwind of public open house events at each one of OLLI’s program locations in Dover, Lewes, Ocean View and Wilmington, closely followed by the start of OLLI’s fall semester with more than 2,000 members participating in on-site and online classes.

Animated by the opportunity to play a leading role in championing and expanding UD’s lifelong learning program across Delaware, Asenavage Loptes sat down with us to share her passion and vision for OLLI’s present and future at UD.

What excites you most about UD’s lifelong learning program?

          “First and foremost, it’s the people, and the opportunity to lead and support a program that serves people in their third act of life. It’s very exciting to me that there are people who really want to continue learning throughout their entire life. Our classroom buildings are simply buzzing with enthusiasm. People are talking about their classes, engaging in conversation and discussion about important topics, making music and art together. They’re genuinely appreciative of each other and the work of UD staff.

“I am constantly amazed at the background, expertise and humility of UD’s OLLI members and volunteers throughout the state. They want to serve on committees and work together; they want to teach; they want to expand lifelong learning opportunities in their communities; and they’re at the heart of this program.

“OLLI members are also enthusiastic OLLI boosters, organizers and donors. During last year’s I Heart UD fundraising campaign, members’ contributions gained tens of thousands of dollars in UD matching gifts, with OLLI’s two campaigns spending most of the campaign at #1 and #2 of UD’s I Heart UD campaign leaderboard. Their enthusiasm is contagious, as well as their commitment to the long-term success of lifelong learning in Delaware.

“And with OLLI’s organizational structure as a volunteer learning cooperative, I really value the commitment and hard work that’s shared between our dedicated UD OLLI staff and OLLI’s member-led council and volunteers.”

Do you see opportunities for increased collaboration between OLLI and the larger UD community?

          “The University of Delaware is an extraordinary institution. I am excited about the strength of the collaboration and collegiality here across the UD community, across departments, colleges and programs. So many people just want to work with and partner with you. I experienced that at ELI and now at OLLI; people across UD want to support what we’re doing.

“OLLI already has had creative collaborations with many faculty, staff, students and programs at UD, and I’m looking to strengthen and build those connections even further, while telling OLLI’s story.

“I think we have opportunities for even more intergenerational collaboration and programs – opportunities that allow for increased exchanges between the so-called ‘younger’ UD students, faculty and researchers, and the OLLI community, who offer such vast expertise, experience and enthusiasm. There is so much more potential for the exchange to happen not just in one direction, but in both directions, from mentoring to research participation to sharing knowledge and experience.”

How can OLLI contribute to lifelong learning opportunities in Delaware?

Karen Asenavage Loptes UD OLLI director          “Delaware is a vibrant and diverse state. I have appreciated learning this firsthand as I travel throughout the state. It is quickly becoming a prime retirement state. We have a perfect mid-Atlantic location, beautiful beaches, fascinating history, great colleges and universities – and it’s a small state with everything in fairly close reach, which is in our favor for making OLLI accessible to people statewide. With Delaware’s retirement-age population growing, UD’s OLLI program is a real gem for our state.

“As one of the first and largest lifelong learning programs in the U.S., we have an unprecedented opportunity to provide the educational connections and learning opportunities for growth and development for this burgeoning population, and to be known as the university and the state that embraces and supports fully engaged aging.

“And it’s not meant to be an exclusive club; it’s meant to be for everyone. We are working together to expand scholarships, expand diversity, expand membership and expand opportunities to share in the benefits of lifelong learning.

“Plus, we’re at a stage in our UD OLLI journey where we’re more poised than ever to expand our statewide impact. There has always been collaboration between UD’s OLLI programs across Delaware, but our pandemic experiences led to a silver lining of increased exchanges, online collaboration, virtual classes and programs, and statewide member committees, contributions and leadership.

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What drives your interest in and commitment to lifelong learning?

          “We’ve all had recent experiences with isolation and stress during the pandemic, and many older Americans experienced isolation long before that. At a recent OLLI open house, a couple came in and were so emotional and happy to be back at OLLI with friends and taking classes post-pandemic. My own mother and uncle died recently. These experiences bring a renewed understanding of the value of our lives at every age and the importance of sustained connection and engagement with others.

“Research tells us that when people stay engaged that they live longer, healthier lives. It’s time for a renewed focus on how we can extend the opportunities of belonging and lifelong learning to an even larger community around us, at UD and Delaware and beyond.”

OLLI spring classes start Feb. 5

For spring 2024, OLLI offerings will include over 300 in-person and online classes, taking place in 13-week, 11-week and five-week sessions. The one-fee registration cost of $260 for the semester allows members to sign up for unlimited classes and activities at all UD OLLI locations and online. Need-based partial financial assistance is available; for details contact the OLLI office at 302-573-4417.

With volunteer instructors at the heart of the program, the expertise from their professional careers, educational backgrounds, avocations and passions provide the source material for the breadth and depth of OLLI’s class offerings. A small sampling includes:

  • Art — painting, woodworking, photography, cardmaking, stained glass
  • General interest — genealogy, current events, book club, writing, investing
  • History — aviation, Civil War, Lewis and Clark, Ireland, medieval technology, racism, WWII
  • Languages — American Sign Language, French, German, Italian, Spanish
  • Literature — banned books, poetry, Robert Frost, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Updike
  • Music ensembles — rock band, orchestra, chorus, guitar, ukulele
  • Science and nature — birding, ecology, electric vehicles
  • Wellness activities — yoga, tai chi, English country dance, Pacific Island dance, meditation

The community is invited to learn more by attending an open house Jan. 8-11 in Lewes (1/8), Wilmington (1/9), Ocean View (1/10), Dover (1/11). A complete spring course listing will be available in mid-December at olli.udel.edu