Bernard Osher Foundation Champions Lifelong Learning

Posted: July 10, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Denise St. Ours

Bernard Osher, a patron of education and the arts, is sometimes referred to as “the quiet philanthropist.” A respected businessman and community leader, he founded the San Francisco-based Bernard Osher Foundation in 1977 to improve quality of life through support for higher education and the arts.

Among the beneficiaries of the Osher Foundation’s generosity is a growing national network of lifelong learning institutes for “seasoned” adults. These institutes now operate on 112 college and university campuses from Maine to Hawaii, including one at George Mason.

Tallwood is OLLI headquarters on the Fairfax Campus.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Those who attend the classes, forums and fieldtrips of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Mason are motivated by one common factor: the desire to enrich their lives through continued education.

The Bernard Osher Foundation has provided gifts totaling more than $1.2 million since 2004 to endow and grow the institute, an independent nonprofit organization affiliated with the university.

According to OLLI Executive Director Richard Chobot, the institute now boasts more than 750 members, most of whom are retired residents of Northern Virginia. Volunteer instructors and speakers, including Mason faculty and OLLI members, contribute their knowledge and skills to more than 250 educational programs a year.

Classes meet at Tallwood on Mason’s Fairfax Campus and satellite locations at Lake Anne Plaza in Reston and the Mason facility in Loudoun County. An annual fee of $350 covers all four terms.

Lilyan Spero, a former president of the Learning in Retirement Institute and OLLI lifetime board member, noted that the organization has become an invaluable resource over the years for those who are looking for a stimulating environment during what can be a very isolating time.

“OLLI is filling a void, providing not only an opportunity for intellectual growth, but also a chance to interact with others of similar circumstances and create new social ties.”

In turn, members of OLLI also have become actively involved and engaged in campus activities and events, and a number of members have made gifts in support of student scholarships and faculty programs in gratitude for the services that the university offers the institute.

At Mason, the Osher Foundation has also contributed $100,000 to establish the Osher Reentry Scholarship Program. The program addresses the unique needs of adults returning to college to complete an undergraduate degree. These reentry, or nontraditional, students may have had their college careers interrupted by family responsibilities or financial concerns and the demands of a full-time job.

Since the program’s inception in 2005, 20 individuals from varied backgrounds between the ages of 25 and 50 have benefited from the scholarships. Among them are

  • A first-generation Hispanic American woman and a single parent of a child with multiple special needs who is pursuing a degree in social work to help other children who face similar challenges

  • A father and coffee shop employee who is sharpening his artistic skills at Mason with the hope of becoming a professional working artist and a college art professor

  • A woman who, after 22 years of working with the elderly, is continuing her education so that she can better serve the burgeoning population of senior citizens as a geriatric nurse

  • An aspiring novelist and father of two who is working toward a degree in historical creative writing

  • A mother and part-time substitute teacher who is back in school so that she can one day walk into a classroom as a fully accredited biology/science teacher

“Returning to college to continue my education as an adult has been quite a challenge,” notes a 40-year-old reentry scholarship recipient. “When foundations such as the Bernard Osher Foundation generously donate finances to returning students, it makes our challenge a little less painful.”

For more information, call the OLLI Fairfax office at 703-503-3384 or e-mail

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