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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 26 · Number 2 · Winter 2009


Overcoming Obstacles and Inspiring Minds

Marcella Lorfing photo

Even though Marcella Lorfing had retired from a career in teaching, her experience with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute inspired her to use her skills and knowledge to teach a writing class to other seniors. (Photo: Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Philanthropic support from the Bernard Osher Foundation provides a critical boost to re-entry students and intellectual stimulation to seniors.

Current Osher Fellow Tina Alexander came to UC Davis 30 years ago as a young undergraduate, overwhelmed and unsure of her life’s direction. After the sudden death of a close friend during Alexander’s sophomore year, she dropped out.

“That was my first major failure in life — walking away from school,” Alexander said. “I convinced myself I didn’t have what it takes.”

Throughout the years, Alexander found her life’s purpose as she and her husband, Jerome, felt compelled to help needy children. Together, they reached out to some of the most vulnerable in our society, and offered hope. After jumping through the arduous hoops of the foster-adopt system, as well as having children, the Alexanders are now the parents of nine children ages 10–18.

Alexander realized that with the power of an education, she could make a bigger difference for those children who still need families. She also realized that she could set an example for her children by returning to school and succeeding where she had formerly failed.

Tough economic times nearly derailed Alexander’s plan to re-enter UC Davis, but then she was awarded an Osher Reentry Scholarship for this fall.

“Having the Osher Scholarship was the deciding factor in my return to UC Davis to pursue my goals,” she said. “It has made all the difference."

Alexander’s goals include completing her undergraduate degree in sociology with an emphasis in social services and African American studies, followed by earning a doctorate in sociology. She plans to use her education, along with her passion for people, to become a powerful advocate for the ethical delivery of social services to disenfranchised populations.

Giving People a Chance

Alexander is one of 10 re-entry students this year who each benefited from a $5,000 scholarship supported by the Bernard Osher Foundation. These scholarships represent the largest award for re-entry students on the UC Davis campus and are made possible through a $1 million endowment from the Osher Foundation, an organization that provides a critical boost to re-entry students in 74 universities across the country, many of whom have overcome significant obstacles to return to school.

One of America’s leading philanthropists, Bernard Osher knows what a difference higher education makes in a person’s life. After college, he launched a successful business career, beginning with the management of his family’s hardware and plumbing supplies store in Maine. He went on to become a founding director of World Savings. Then 30 years ago he created the foundation to provide funds for higher education and the arts. Osher explained that while he and his four siblings had the benefit of a college education, that opportunity was unavailable to their parents who immigrated from Russia and Lithuania.

“I decided early on to support scholarships for people who desired education but had severely limited financial resources,” Osher said. “Higher education enhances career choices, earning power and self-esteem — and I would like to help as many people as possible to have that chance.”

Bernard Osher photo

Bernard Osher’s philanthropic commitment to education — and UC Davis — has helped re-entry students and senior citizens return to the classroom.

For Lifelong Learning

Re-entry students aren’t the only scholars at UC Davis who benefit from Osher’s generosity. Last year, the Osher Foundation gave $1 million to endow the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) — the university’s program for local seniors. While the Osher Foundation supports such institutes at 115 colleges and universities nationwide, only 26 colleges and universities in the country have received large endowments to provide a perpetual source of funds.

Managed by UC Davis Extension in partnership with a volunteer board of directors, OLLI offers approximately 30 courses per quarter for individuals older than 50. Some of the more popular offerings focus on health, current events and public service.

“I am convinced,” Osher said, “that continued learning is an essential ingredient for leading a healthy and productive life.”

Community partnerships with the Davis Arts Center, local seniors community and the Davis Varsity Theatre, among others, provide educational opportunities to keep seniors invigorated and engaged with society.

“We’re grateful for the thoughtful, committed support of the Osher Foundation,” said UC Davis Extension Dean Dennis Pendleton. “We wouldn’t be able to offer this tremendous program without their help.”

Marcella Lorfing is one of the many who have benefitted from the program; she also contributes to it. A retired English and history teacher, Lorfing took a few classes through OLLI several years ago and found she still had the desire to teach. She’s now back in the classroom, teaching a course on memoir writing for other seniors. Each quarter, the class publishes a compilation of the students’ stories.

“I really enjoy helping others write about their lives and keeping their minds engaged,” Lorfing said. With the involvement of people like Lorfing and the financial support of the Osher Foundation, UC Davis is able to offer seniors tools for the lifelong pursuit of knowledge.