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Sunday’s Press Democrat story “Older students learn for the sake of learning,” reprinted from the New York Times, focused exclusively on two lifelong learning programs on the East Coast, one at Johns Hopkins University and the other at Westchester Community College in Connecticut.

While this may be breaking news elsewhere in the country, it’s important to recognize that Sonoma County residents have been pioneering in lifelong learning program development for fully 15 years through Sonoma State University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Program at its main campus site and at its satellite campus at Oakmont.

Not only was SSU’s Osher program the second one in the nation to be funded by the Bernard Osher Foundation, but it has remained an acknowledged model and leader in the phenomenal growth of the national network of 119 Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs, which currently serves more than 150,000 adult learners taking classes at universities and colleges across the country.

Recognizing the continuing educational needs of the growing population of those at or nearing retirement age, sher Lifelong Learning Institute programs, now existing in nearly every state, offer a rich variety of challenging, non-credit, university-level courses typically taught by active or retired faculty, regional specialists, as well as experts in national and international affairs.

At SSU and Oakmont, more than 1,600 students each year ranging in age from 50 to 90-plus enjoy three terms of six-week courses without the burden of tests, grades or even specific reading requirements.

In addition, however, participants regularly follow-up stimulating lectures with extensive reading, research, field trips and even international travel on their own or with Osher Lifelong Learning Institute groups.

For many, it is a chance to explore topics and fields of long interest that were put aside earlier because of the demands of busy lives and careers.For others, it’s an opportunity to delve deeper, update knowledge in or even teach fields they’ve already pursued in depth.

As the New York Times article does point out, such programs are equally important for the maintenance of mental and physical health as people age.

The tremendous value of participating in creative social communities where individuals can continue to connect with and share interests and activities with like-minded peers has been documented in numerous studies of healthy aging.

In the words of Nancy Merz Nordstrom, author of “Learning Later, Living Greater,” “Lifelong learning is like a health club for your brain. It’s an all-around fantastic tool for better health.”

Significantly, nearly a third of Sonoma County’s total population of nearly a half million fall into the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute age-range demographic, suggesting that there will be a growing need here, as well as elsewhere, for a variety of creative and mind-enhancing programs as people age.

Current Osher Lifelong Learning Institute offerings cover subject areas in the arts, contemporary issues, food and wine, natural sciences, social and political history and world cultures.

Topics evolve with student interest and suggestions, and all bring with them access to a rich variety of extracurricular activities including art exhibits, lectures, concerts and library use.

As part of its long progressive heritage, Sonoma County should not only recognize but take pride in its key role in the development of what has become a significant national trend.

And, those not yet familiar with the remarkable Osher Lifelong Learning Program at Sonoma State should definitely do so.

Les Adler is professor emeritus at Sonoma State University and board chairman of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at SSU.

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