LLI Spotlight:  Dee Aguilar, Coordinator, OLLI at University of Nebraska-Lincoln

By Peter Spiers

The Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was founded in 1992 by Dr. Deanna Eversoll as part of the Division of Continuing Education.  Deanna Eversoll assembled a group of innovators from the university and the community inspired by other programs developing nationally and, in January of that year, the first courses were offered by an organization then called SAGE (Sharing Across Generations for Enrichment).  Ten years later the program  affiliated with the Alumni Association.   In 2004, SAGE applied for and received a grant from the Osher Foundation, becoming an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  Membership at that time stood at 200 and, since then, two $1 million dollar endowments have been awarded by the Osher Foundation, it has grown to more than 1,600 members, and now is part of the College of Education and Human Sciences.  Dee Aguilar leads a full-time staff of four, including an Event Coordinator, a Marketing and Communications Manager, and a Staff Assistant.   

Dee describes the organization as "member engaged, member driven, and member led."  Oversight is provided by a 17-member advisory board and nine standing committees, the largest of which is the 50-member Curriculum Committee.  Membership dues are $75 for a full year (August through July), and $50 for January-July membership.   A typical six-week course costs $30 and some courses have additional fees when supply expenses or field trips are involved.  Members also receive discounts from OLLI partners in the community.  Special Interest Groups (SIGs) are very popular; groups focusing on international or domestic issues can gather 50 to 60 members to their monthly meetings, and groups like OPPs (OLLI Ping-Pong Players) and the woodworking SIG also have loyal followings.  The members of OLLI at UNL are an engaged group of learners. 

What do you consider your major responsibilities at OLLI UNL? 

My big three are serving as liaison to the broader university community, working with the member leadership, and overseeing the day-to-day operation of the program. 

How is your relationship with UNL?

The university is very supportive.  Since the beginning, lifelong learning has been endorsed, supported and embraced by the University community, especially the Dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences.  Faculty and staff contribute to the OLLI program and continue after retirement as members, volunteers instructing or assisting with program operations.  In addition, students have the opportunity to volunteer or do internships.  Our relationship with the Office of Research & Economic Development is a good example.  That office is responsible for coordinating public and private partnerships that further the university’s research objectives and also for publicizing research results.  They refer young faculty to us who are just beginning to produce original research, and they come to OLLI and share those results with our members.  The faculty get an opportunity to talk about their work, and our members get a glimpse into cutting-edge work.

What are some favorite courses you offer? 

History is our largest area of interest, and contemporary issues, the arts, literature, and writing—especially memoir writing—are also popular.  A favorite UNL Lecturer in History has a real following and members will plan their schedules around his lectures.  He’s very charismatic and teaches history like a story teller without sacrificing accuracy and facts, and can attract 200 people to a lecture hall.  This fall he’s teaching "The History of Spying."  We also have a number of courses on-the-go that take members into the community and into places like artists’ studios to learn about their medium and creative process and maybe even try their hand at making art.  Our members are also interested in how things work, and we’ve had classes on recycling that visit landfills.  National and local politics with a focus on up-to-the-minute issues are also very popular. 

What developments do you see in the future for your LLI or for the lifelong learning movement more broadly?

  We’ve been growing rapidly, and a lot of our growth has been driven by baby boomers moving into the area to retire close to family.  Strategically, we’re focused on managing that organizational growth and sustainability.  Our standard courses used to be six weekly meetings of 1 ½ hours, but now people want classes condensed into one to three weeks.  We’re also seeing a demand for distance learning, and we’ve used Adobe Connect to bring experts from around the country into our classes, using member and university connections to make that happen.  One of our members, for example, is a retired faculty member who contacted a former UNL colleague about doing a one-time course..  Members heard a great lecture in our course "Fake News and Alternative Facts" and the technology enabled Q&A and great interactivity.  We did something similar for a lecture on Thomas Jefferson by an expert from Monticello in collaboration with the Jefferson Foundation. 

What did you do before you came to UNL?

I’m a native Nebraskan and have worked at OLLI for 12 years, ten as coordinator.  I’ve had a 35-year career working with older adults in recreation, continuing education, aging services and now OLLI.  Along the way I returned to school at UNL and got my Doctorate in gerontology in 2011!

Where would you most like to travel to that you haven’t visited already?

I’m very excited for my trip in 2018 to Okinawa to visit family serving there in the military.  It will be my first time out of the United States!  I also want to visit more of our National Parks, and to see more of Nebraska as we celebrate our 150th anniversary of statehood this year.

Tell me about a book you’ve read or podcast you’ve listened to that you would recommend to others? 

Garrison Keillor is on a national tour and is going to be in Lincoln in August.  I’ve got tickets and right now I’m focused on listening to his podcasts and reading his Lake Woebegone stories.  He’s irreplaceable.  His storytelling really appeals to me because that’s how my own family history has been passed down.