High tuition costs can put college education out of reach for many who can’t afford it, but the young founders of this unique program are providing graduate level courses to New Yorkers for $10 to $20 a pop.
Chris Zumtobel and David Kurfirst first met in a social entrepreneurship class at Baruch College, where they discovered the challenges facing many adjunct professors, such as low wages, lack of job security and benefits, and other obstacles. The pair decided to provide a platform for these instructors while offering low-cost classes to anyone with a desire to learn, regardless of their educational background.
Last year, the City University of New York students officially founded Think Olio as a social good company that brings college professors into underserved communities for those who want to keep learning.
“Our core belief is that education should be an ongoing, lifelong endeavor,” says Co-Founder David Kurfirst.
In March of 2015, Zumtobel and Kurfirst held Think Olio’s inaugural class in their living room; since then, more than 100 Olios—named for a random collection of art and literature—have been held at 20 different locations.
Kurfirst and Zumtobel believe that they’ve “cut the fat” off of higher education by removing the hefty costs, tests and grades, “fluorescent lighting,” and people who don’t really want to be there. At its core, the program seeks to bring people together to expand their respective worldviews, enhancing their awareness and “nurturing their appreciation for the humanities.”
Think Olio topics are eclectic, and meant to expand the students’ worldview. Classes range from poetry to politics, comedy, and culture, with courses such as “Comedy as Social Action: Amy Schumer, Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy” and “A Forgotten Syndrome: Vietnam, Memory, and America’s Wars in the Middle East.”
“Being a part of the Olio community has really helped satisfy my thirst for knowledge and desire for new experiences, without my having to make major financial investments or time commitments,” said Christiana Lopez, who has attended nine Olios so far. “I’m also really happy about the interesting new people I’ve connected with since I started attending classes.”
As their website reads, Think Olio exists “as a conduit for fruitful discussions, a dissent from the regurgitation of facts, and an embrace of new perspectives.” Professors have been eager to bring their expertise to venues where they can teach on anything they want, and classes are posted on their website for people to reserve a space.
“For me Think Olio is about getting to teach on things that I might not be able to in a traditional classroom,” says Professor Michael Haltenberger, who’s taught 11 different classes. “The program allows me a chance to meet true lifetime learners, people who don’t think leaving college is an excuse to stop thinking deeply about our world and our place in it.”
The founders say their ultimate goal is to bring Think Olio everywhere, and that they expect a little help from their friends in places like Denver, Philly, and Munich who want to host some pop-up classes in their city. They also plan to become an official B corporation in the near future.
“Our students are getting the chance to learn from a college professor in a handpicked local business while meeting new people,” Kurfirst said. “It’s been great for folks who are out of college and have nostalgia for the classroom, but it’s been especially awesome for people who never had the chance to go to college at all.”
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