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When the whole is greater than the sum of its parts

By Gina Gotthilf

Section: Features

January 30, 2009

Brandeis University takes pride in its diversity. Beyond the verbal emphasis in Brandeis’ mission statement, students are recruited from around the globe and represent different cultures, systems of beliefs and socio-economic backgrounds. However, age remains a constant as most Brandeis students belong to a single generation.

Yet this may not be for long with the continuous integration of Brandeis students and students at the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. BOLLI, an organization that offers classes for men and women aged 50 and older, actively represents one of Brandeis’ Core Values: Lifelong Learning.

Many students have probably noticed the unusually large presence of older adults at the Gosman Sports Center every Tuesday and Wednesday. Many students are probably also unaware of BOLLI’s existence. But recent programs devised by the BOLLI administration are seeking to promote ways in which Brandeis students across generations can learn from each other.

“We have two goals in mind,” BOLLI Director Sharon Sokoloff ’91 said. “I want our members [both] to get to know students and to combat ageism.”

According to Sokoloff, many students assume BOLLI is an organization for retired and bored older adults. Instead, BOLLI members are retired professionals who believe in the value of lifelong learning, as per one of Brandeis’ core values. BOLLI is one of 119 Lifelong Learning Institutes across the country and among the few which strongly emphasize the importance of intergenerational learning.

“[Young adults] tell us what the future is about,” Sokoloff said, while older adults have experiences of their own to share as well.

With this in mind, three programs were recently created to facilitate this exchange and to coax students out of their usual classroom buildings. One such program, The BOLLI Scholars program, encourages students at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management to trek down the Brandeis hill to teach BOLLI classes at the Gosman Sports Center. This program gives Heller students the opportunity to teach a course about international development as it pertains to their own country of origin.

“They get a tiny little stipend and a fancy title,” Sokoloff said,” but the best reward is the experience.”

Even though many graduate students have taught classes or assisted professors in a college setting, leading discussions at BOLLI can be strikingly different. While undergraduate students are on the verge of beginning their professional careers and may be concerned with their grades and reputation, BOLLI students are experienced, well-traveled and on the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

Sophie Freud, granddaughter of Sigmund Freud and an engaged group leader at BOLLI, said the difference between teaching undergraduate and BOLLI students is largely contextual. A retired professor herself, she should know. “[With BOLLI], you’re not sending people into the world for a career,” she said. “It’s more important that [BOLLI students] can express themselves than it is for them to internalize every factual detail.”

Participating Brandeis students have so far benefited from these differences. Ivan Enciso ’09, a Heller student and teaching assistant, said his experience as a BOLLI Scholar was challenging and rewarding. Though he has worked as a teaching assistant at Heller for over a year, Enciso said that speaking to BOLLI members about Mexico, his home country, was unusually demanding.

Since his students belonged to a different generation, they had different points of view from those usually expressed in his classes. “Their questions were hard to answer and made me think,” he said.

Moreover, Enciso was surprised at the liberty he was given as an instructor and group leader in comparison to the structured environment of a class at Heller. “[BOLLI members] really appreciate it when you express your own ideas and feelings instead of just following rules,” he said.

Now in its fifth year at Brandeis, one-third of BOLLI courses include sessions led by Heller Scholars. Sokoloff said she hopes to devise appropriate programs to better incorporate students from the Brandeis International Business School, as well as undergraduate students into BOLLI over the next few years. “The issue is to make it compelling for our members,” she said.

Sokoloff explained that she plans on inviting students from campus clubs that may be of interest to BOLLI members, such the Arab-Jewish Dialogue Group and other co-existence themed clubs. “The potential is unlimited,” she said. “There’s just no lose here.”

Another one of BOLLI’s recent additions, the International Friends program, on the other hand, eliminates the classroom setting altogether, and allows for BOLLI-Heller student relationships to develop outside of Brandeis. The International Friends program, also in its fifth year, matches incoming international Heller students with BOLLI families.

Heller Assistant Dean of Academic and Student Services Doris Breay said the value of this relationship is twofold: BOLLI members have the opportunity to learn about a different culture while Heller students are given the chance to experience snippets of American life from within. “Since students spend most of their time at Heller, which is very international, this is an opportunity to see an American home and family,” she said.

Assistant Director for Students and Community Relations Mary Brooks ’03 explained that many students arrive at Brandeis bearing negative perceptions of the United States. Upon meeting their host families, however, most quickly change their minds. “They’re very surprised that Americans can be warm and generous,” she said.

Students often spend American holidays with their BOLLI families, and many are given the opportunity to participate in traditional Jewish holidays as well. BOLLI members also enjoy taking their international students to museums, concerts or tours of nearby cities. “Each family creates their own way of [enjoying the relationship],” Brooks said.

While some families have had to resort to meeting with their students once a semester due to the demanding workload at Heller, others have experienced surprisingly tight bonds. Avid BOLLI member Richard Glantz, for instance, has referred to his student Hammad Masood ’07 as his Pakistani son every since they met in 2006. Bob Russo, another BOLLI member, receives weekly calls from his former student Abla Tsolu ’08 who is now living at home in Ghana.

In return, BOLLI members not only learn about first hand, practical experiences in different corners of the globe, but several members have also visited International Friends in their respective home countries upon graduation. With 50-70 countries represented at Heller at any given year, the opportunities are numerous and diverse.

Heller students also invite their BOLLI family to cultural events at Heller. “Most of the cultures from which our students come from are very generous,” Breay said. “So instead of just receiving, they always find different ways of giving back by sharing.”

The program has been more successful than most of its organizers anticipated. Though the original idea envisaged a relationship that would come to an end as each student completed their first year at Heller, most International Friends have maintained steady contact beyond Heller, regardless of whether the student remained in the United States after graduation or returned home. “I assumed that it would end, but that didn’t happen,” Breay said. This year the majority of international students at Heller have decided to participate in the program.

Though undergraduate involvement is still on paper for both programs, this semester saw the take-off of a third intergenerational program, organized by BOLLI in conjunction with the Hiatt career center, which was geared at undergraduate students. The brand new Hiatt Panels bring BOLLI professionals up the hill to speak to undergraduate students about the ins and outs of possible future careers.

On Nov. 4, BOLLI members hosted a Pre-Law panel in which they spoke about experiences throughout their careers, gave students advice and answered questions. As the date coincided with election night, only eight students showed up, yet Hiatt Pre-Law Advisor Nancy Waggner said the panelists “were really terrific” and declared the event a success.

Not only did the wide breadth of issues covered appeal to every member in the audience, she said, but the panelists were very effective in addressing the present and future aspects of a career in law, rather than merely reminiscing about their own past experiences. Moreover, since BOLLI members are familiar with each other, Waggner said the discussion felt like a conversation. “There was a nice balance of opinions,” she said.

Saghi Soffinzon, one of the eight students who attended the panel, said in an e-mail that he was very pleased with the outcome of this event.

“I was impressed by the caliber of the lawyers and the diversity of the fields in which they worked,” he said.

Sokoloff and Waggner both expressed interest in continuing a BOLLI-Hiatt relationship in order to organize more career panels in 2009.

To the BOLLI community, retired no longer means obsolete. In this new age of old age, Brandeis-BOLLI programs encourage students to recognize the value of experiences shared across generations. Whether in relation to the university or life, as Sokoloff put it, “the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts.”

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