Carnegie Mellon University

Osher group photo

February 12, 2021

"What Osher at CMU Means to Me..." - A Series

By Jan Hawkins

When I say to friends, “I have an Osher class this afternoon,” often they are unaware and misunderstand the organization about which I am speaking. I clearly state “Osher,” yet what they hear is “OSHA.”

Since passage by Congress of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, American workers have relied on OSHA to set and enforce standards for safe and healthful working conditions and to provide training, outreach, education and assistance. With more than 30 years working in the nuclear industry, I have high appreciation of OSHA and its team of professionals.

After five years in retirement, I now have high appreciation for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and its team of professionals — within the national foundation and locally at Carnegie Mellon University and our sister institution at the University of Pittsburgh. Our Osher teams focus on training, outreach, education and assistance just like counterparts in OSHA.

What’s the difference between education and training? A Wikipedia search led to the comparison of imparting knowledge versus teaching specific skills. I can see this revealed in my Osher at CMU experience. My thirst for knowledge is being quenched in courses about literature, history, writing and sociology. Day by day, inch by inch, my computer skills are being improved through use of Zoom. Other volunteers and the Osher at CMU staff are providing assistance to teach this skill.

As humans, social interaction is an essential component of our emotional and physical health. In this time of pandemic, the Osher at CMU mission of socialization and outreach is much more difficult to achieve. We all know it is pretty much off limits to reach out—let alone touch—anyone. All is not lost, though, and I certainly have experienced wonderful times of meeting and getting to know people and establishing new friendships through my Osher classes on Zoom.

This spring with the pandemic lockdown, Osher at CMU created a new forum called Zoom Interest Groups (ZIGs). A colleague of mine on the Board of Directors said he wanted to create a ZIG about baking bread. I was quick to raise (no pun intended) my hand to say, “I want to join.”

Over these months a small group of about ten has met on Zoom to share our love of baking. In just the first few weeks of Zoom sessions, I felt a real affinity with these ladies and gentlemen. Our common interest in the centuries-old practice of mixing flour, water and yeast led to a binding of friendship. As each Tuesday approached, I looked forward with anticipation to our Zoom baking sessions. Outside of class, some of us emailed about recipes and shared advice about ingredients or quantities. These simple topics led to long-term friendships.

Oh sure…it might sound silly. Oh sure…you might think I exaggerate. And certainly I am not talking about national standards or impacts, like they do in OSHA. As an individual, though, I am sure about the wonderful benefits realized from my membership in Osher.

Oh sure, I’m sure, it’s Osher for me. Thank you to the Osher staff and all of my new friends!

Past Stories

Please enjoy stories we posted earilier! Click on the names below to read their Osher at CMU stories.

When I think about the physical entity that is Osher at CMU, what comes first to mind is the benches outside of Wean Hall 4707 and 4708, with Osher members standing and sitting, chatting with one another, while waiting for their classes to begin. This image encapsulates both the social nature of our organization and the lack of a suitable space for socializing that has hindered us ever since I first joined the program. The prospect of having such a space, after nearly 40 years without one, is truly exhilarating.

Eileen and I knew about Osher programs when we moved to Pittsburgh, as we came from a university community in southern California that had a robust program. We were at first daunted by the waiting list for Osher at CMU and didn’t find the Pitt Osher program to be our cup of tea. The discovery that we could volunteer in the office and thereby bypass the waiting list energized us, and after a few months of volunteering, we became members in 2013.

I then embarked on a series of involvements with Osher, each of which I characterize as not seeing the train coming until it hit me: joining the Curriculum Committee, then being asked to join the Board, and not much later becoming your President.

Perhaps the most unexpected was my involvement in teaching the game of Bridge. I was drafted to teach it when the then-regular instructor of Bridge for Beginners, having an overflow enrollment, dropped from her course all those who had previous knowledge of the game. Asked to step in and provide a course for these not-quite-beginners, I agreed, and one could say that the rest is history. Over the ensuing six years, I have offered 31 sections of nine different Bridge courses, enrolling nearly 300 different students. The courses led to two Special Interest Groups of aficionados who met regularly for their weekly Bridge game. Those, in turn, spawned some number of regular bridge “parties”.

Then came CoVid-19. Two of the first outbreaks in the US arose from Bridge tournaments in Arizona and Colorado, and it became immediately evident that exchanging playing cards with other players around small tables was a perfect vector for spread of the virus. We immediately suspended our weekly get-togethers, and I modified my Bridge courses to eliminate face-to-face card playing. To my pleasant surprise, our Osher Bridge players turned out to be very adaptable. The American Contract Bridge League offers on-line Bridge games, and in what seemed to be the blink of an eye, many of those who had been avid SIG participants were setting up regular games using this platform. I have no way to know many there are, but my wife and I participate in four weekly games, and I know of at least three others.

The pandemic will eventually wane, and we hope to resume playing Bridge face-to-face. I visualize this occurring in the new Osher quarters that are being refurbished in Cyert Hall, a far cry from standing around in the narrow corridors of Wean Hall.

The Osher Effect

In short, the butterfly effect says a small change can result in large differences later. I retired from teaching in the Pittsburgh Public Schools in 2006. I was physically and mentally drained. The diagnosis after seeing too many doctors—chronic fatigue. But education was ingrained in my being, and after spending a year mostly in bed, I looked around for opportunities to expand my constricted life. My sons were grown, I didn’t golf, and I hated cooking and quilting. What to do?

I discovered Osher through friends. When I saw the offerings in the catalog, I immediately got on the waiting list and was accepted. The classes opened my mind and broadened the scope of my knowledge. But for me, maybe the most lasting effect—the one that changed my life the most—was getting to know people who shared my passion for learning.

After a few years of taking classes, Lyn asked me to consider presenting a class on the history of Squirrel Hill. I taught it for several years and maybe will do so again. I don’t know which aspect I liked best—the growth in my own knowledge of my chosen subject as I continued to research it or the interactions I had with the people in my lively classes. I hadn’t realized how much I missed that interaction after I retired. Now I’m co-presenting Writers’ Workshop with Thalia Snyder. We consider ourselves keepers of the fire of writing, current caretakers walking in the footsteps of beloved Jean Peterson and Bill Ott and all those who presented the class before them. What if I hadn’t taken that first step to join Osher? Where would I be today?