Adult students captivated by top professors speaking at One Day University event

“You’re now going to experience all the good things about school without the horrible things that used to make me cry, like tests and homework and being called on,” said Katrina Orsini in her welcome to 300 adult students at One Day University Saturday, March 18.

Rather than sitting at cramped desks, students were gathered in the comfortable seats of the David & Dorothea Garfield Theatre in La Jolla, eager to hear from four of the top professors in the country for no other reason than simply to learn.

One Day University offers day-long events in 58 cities, and this was the second year it was being held in San Diego. Many of the students were also back for their second time.

The event curriculum consisted of four eclectic lectures: “Four Books Every Book Lover Should Read,” “The Psychology of Good and Evil,” “Does America’s Political System Still Work?” and “The New Middle East: The Rise of ISIS in an Explosive Region.”

“We take polls to see what courses students are most interested in,” explained Steve Schragis, founder of One Day University. “And we visit schools around the country to identify the professors who are winning all the teaching awards and who get the highest ratings from the students.”

It’s easy to see why these professors were chosen. Seth Lerer, Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of California at San Diego, charmed the audience as he moved around the theater, sharing insightful and often hilarious stories about how to find (and lose) yourself in reading, the way literature teaches you how to read life and gives you a vocabulary for expressing the world, and how reading helps you understand truth through the beauty of words.

He explored four classics – David Copperfield, 1984, Invisible Man, Catch 22 – and recommended four more recent must-reads: The Sympathizer, The Orphan Master’s Son, The Sense of an Ending and anything by Elizabeth Strout.

Lerer talked about the importance of books during this time of great social change, and showed how reading makes you more empathetic.

“This talk was new for me, but what it taught me was how deeply engaged many people today still are with the emotional impact of reading and the value of the printed book,” said Lerer, who has taught at a dozen of these events. “Teaching through One Day University provides me with the chance to share the social challenges of reading with an audience of engaged adults – a group with many different experiences, people who have shared the lives of my generation and who recognize the value of literary culture and language change in our time.”

According to Lerer, teaching in this context is different from teaching college students, “in large part because my undergraduates today experience literature and language through increasingly digital and virtual means. Both kinds of teaching enhance each other, and I’m glad to be able to do both.”

Catherine Sanderson, who taught “The Psychology of Good and Evil” in San Diego and regularly teaches one of One Day University’s most popular courses, “Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness,” agreed. “I love teaching at One Day U, precisely because the students are not my typical 18-22 year olds,” she laughed. “The One Day U students attend these talks because they want to learn – they are not required to be there! They are smart, engaged, and intellectually curious. Perhaps most importantly, the questions One Day U students ask are uniformly great ones – because they are based on a much broader world view and experience than my typical undergraduates.”

Sanderson’s talk was riveting and timely as she explained that evil happens gradually, giving clear examples of how obedience to authority resulted in the mass suicides at Jonestown and desensitization led to the Holocaust. She pointed out that narcissism – the opposite of empathy – is way up right now and that nothing is more damaging than standing by when evil is happening.

“The common feature for all of my talks is that I like to integrate cutting-edge scientific research with real-world anecdotes and examples so that people can directly apply information from empirical research to their own lives,” said Sanderson, who is the James E. Ostendarp Professor at Amherst College and is often cited as the school’s most popular professor. “I always end my talks with specific strategies that people can use and implement in their own lives. My hope is that people will not just find my talks intellectually engaging, but also practical in terms of learning strategies they can use in some way moving forward.”

Students had so many questions for her, she had to offer her email address so lunch could be served. Following a box lunch, during which time students discussed what they had learned in the morning, the afternoon session started – and it was just as engaging.

Schragis relates to the students’ enthusiasm, which is what gave him the idea to start One Day University back in 2005.

“I was bringing my daughter to college in upstate New York, and there were a dozen professors scattered around campus, giving short talks on the subject they taught,” he explained. “The parents all loved it and thought, ‘This is great! I wish I were the one going to college!’”

He bought the URL that night and held the first One Day University event in Westchester County, New York, about 40 miles outside of Manhattan.

A decade later, there are more than 100 events a year, and the number continues to grow. More than 66,000 students have attended One Day University, with an impressive 70 percent return rate.

The next San Diego event will be held on Oct. 14. Courses will include “The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office,” “Music as a Mirror of History: 300 Years in 60 Minutes” and “The Science of Stress and the Practice of Mindfulness.”

For more information and to register, visit