By MARTY LEVINE
When in-person classes were cancelled in spring at Pitt’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute — serving 1,700 members, mostly 50 years old or older, with classes, educational trips and events — Director Sharon Gretz thought: “Would our program work online? Would people want to take it? Would people know how to use Zoom?
“The human engagement factor of our program can’t be underestimated,” she said. “It’s not just classes. It’s getting out of the house every day, seeing classmates. Some people ordered their days around Osher.
“The people in our program could be identified as high-risk out there in COVID world,” Gretz added. “For people who are already a little isolated, it’s been a really important part of the week.”
Students normally hung out in the Osher lounge inside 1400 Posvar Hall before and after class, practicing Spanish or solving the world’s problems, she said. They crowded into buses for excursions to the zoo and aviary for private tours behind the scenes, and took day trips to Chautauqua Institution in New York for talks, or to Meadowcroft to see the archaeological dig.
Although those trips were, of course, cancelled, classes have now been revived online.
“Somehow we did it,” Gretz said, crediting her small staff: Program Coordinator Pat Szczepanski, Program Assistant Miranda Alu and student worker Elizabeth Peterson, who pitched in to run a “Get ready to Zoom” session for students and coach instructors.
More than 1,000 Osher members are now online. Art classes, for instance, might not be as lively when it’s hard to see the art, Gretz said, but the situation also has its advantages. “Zoom is an unlimited room,” she noted, so students aren’t shut out of the most popular courses.
Former students who are not as mobile today can also take part: “I’ve had multiple people contact me, saying ‘I was a member of Osher and it became harder to get to Oakland, but now I can rejoin.’ It’s made it, for some people, easier to participate.”
Zoom also has allowed some of students’ socializing to continue, she said. Even though there are Osher programs at universities across the country, some alumni of Pitt’s Osher have rejoined from afar to spend time in class with their Pittsburgh friends.
“More than likely we will continue to have online courses once things open up,” Gretz said.
One downside has been the delay of classes Osher was planning to hold at the Homewood Community Engagement Center. “I’m finding it’s not as easy to connect people to our online stuff” in Homewood, she said, because some potential students there lack the proper computers or available Wifi.
Gretz, who joined Osher as director just under three years ago, was previously the founder of a national nonprofit, now called Apraxia-Kids, focused on supporting research, education and therapy for this severe motor disorder that affects a child’s ability to speak. When she was ready to hand off the nonprofit to new leadership, she saw the Osher opening and thought: “That sounds like me, because I’m a lifelong learner.”
Today she and her staff spend their time recruiting new members and new instructors while guiding the development of fresh activities and courses, offering more than 100 of the latter in two five-week sessions every term.
“I’m just so impressed with everyone — they all rose to the occasion: the staff, the members, the instructors,” Gretz said. The new term starts on Aug. 31.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
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