College receives $1M gift

College receives $1M gift

Aquinas College in Grand Rapids is a Catholic liberal arts school, founded in 1886. Photo via

A lifelong learning program addressing the intellectual and spiritual needs of older learners in the region has been awarded a $1-million endowment to support its continued growth.

Aquinas College said today that the Bernard Osher Foundation, an organization seeking to improve quality of life through supporting higher education and the arts, awarded a $1 million endowment to the Grand Rapids-based college’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in recognition of its sustainable growth.

Headquartered in San Francisco, the Bernard Osher Foundation provides support for a national lifelong learning network, which operates on approximately 119 campuses across the country including Aquinas College. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Aquinas is designed to provide pre- and post-retirement educational opportunities to individuals who are 50-years-old and older.

Mary G. F. Bitterman, foundation president, said the endowment gift acknowledges the success and continued growth of the program at Aquinas.

“The $1 million award recognizes the collective achievement of OLLI’s excellent staff, dynamic community of intellectually vigorous members and the college’s leadership for its steadfast support of the program,” Bitterman said. “It was awarded to the program because of its substantial growth and the deep commitment shown by its students and staff.”

Sheila Pantlind, director of the OLLI program at Aquinas, said the endowment gift was based in large part on recognition of the success of the program in recent years.

“In the last five years we have steadily improved our membership numbers, we have steadily improved the number of classes we offered, we have been able to get even better and more professors from all the area colleges,” Pantlind said. “Consequently, our program has been growing steadily because of the interest from students and the outstanding professors.”

Aquinas’ OLLI program was selected among a small number of other participating colleges to apply for a $1 million endowment last year after receiving a phone call from a Bernard Osher Foundation representative, according to Pantlind.

“(We) had to be asked in order to apply. It wasn’t something that any program could apply for,” Pantlind said. “We sent in our application, which was basically just verifying our numbers, classes, volunteer opportunities, fundraising (and) fund balance. They wanted to see how the money is used, and if we were supported by the college.”

Juan Olivarez, Aquinas president, was notified by Bernard Osher in late December the program had received the $1 million in financial support, according to Pantlind. Aquinas’ OLLI program received its first $1 million endowment from the foundation in 2012, and also received close to $100,000 when the college first joined the foundation’s network.

“Because we had a longstanding program and believed in lifelong learning and how important it was to every community, and because the program was doing so well, is why they were endowing us with this money, which is fabulous,” Pantlind said.

OLLI will be able to use up to 5 percent of the total endowment each year, which will help sustain the program moving forward. The funds will be used to keep membership costs down, attract outside speakers and local professors and business professionals, scholarship opportunities and operational expenses, such as paying to be in the building on Aquinas’ campus and maintenance of the facility. The cost for membership is set up on a tiered basis, with a low cost of $25 to join and up to $385 to participate in classes without paying additional fees.

OLLI was originally established in 1973 by Dr. Norbert Hruby, the former college president, and launched in 1975 as the Aquinas Emeritus College with 115 students. Operating under the oversight of the Emeritus Board, the program soon joined the growing OLLI network in 2008 with a grant from the Bernard Osher Foundation.

Quickly approaching its 40th anniversary, OLLI has grown to approximately 1,500 students enrolled in more than 160 classes held annually. Several of the fields covered in OLLI programs include: science, history, religion, philosophy, culture, food, math, current events and political science.

Currently, funding for Aquinas’ OLLI program is allocated from membership fees, donations from community members, and interest on the original endowment provided by the Osher Foundation.

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