Wednesday, November 2, 2016

So Many Windows: Women Going Back to School

Back in 1980, when I was an undergraduate at St. Joseph College in West Hartford, there were the two older women students in my American history class. They were kind of a novelty to me, having just transferred from a very “male” school. And they sure added a lot to the class, I thought: they had insights and life experience that we 18- and 19-year-olds didn’t. They got credit for some of that life experience, too; and that, too, was impressive.

Fast-forward to the present. St. Joseph College is now the University of St. Joseph and has a strong Adult Learning Program, started in 1985.. “My positions have changed,” observes Dr. Raymie Wayne, the university’s Associate Dean of Graduate and Professional Studies. Wayne transferred to Saint Joseph’s back in 1991 and returned to teach in the social work department in 2003. “So, sometimes what you see depends on where you sit….What I see now is that a lot of women have tremendous pressure and responsibility in their lives, combined with drive and motivation.”

The women students she deals with are definitely juggling a lot of balls. They’re not only parents, but they may also “be caregivers for their parents or other aging members of their families. They very often have demanding jobs that are not flexible. Sometimes even their supervisors feel threatened that they’re going back to school and don’t do the things that would make it easier.” Many have “tenuous living situations” and/or demanding husbands or partners. “Families vary in how much they understand being a part-time or full-time student, so they vary in how much support they provide or, alternately, in how much they distract.”

The Adult Learning Program currently offers majors in five areas: social work; accounting; management; psychology; and an RN – to B. S. in nursing, which allows students with associate’s degrees from state community colleges to earn bachelor’s degrees in science. Each has “some accelerated path to graduate studies,” Wayne explains. “In some cases, the student would have to apply. No guarantee, but the opportunity is there.”

Wayne is also working on revitalizing and expanding the university’s prior learning assessment – that life-experience piece of the puzzle that seemed so new and radical to me back in 1980. “It has had different names and different configurations over the years,” she says, “but what has remained the same is the commitment to working adults who are returning to school[,…] provid[ing] them with the small classes and individualized attention and caring community that is St. Joseph’s.” In her eyes, they are simply honoring the core values set down in its mission statement. The Sisters of Mercy, who founded the school back in 1932, “were a truly amazing progressive group,” determined to create a learning environment where professional studies and the liberal arts were in balance with one another.

“A majority of the students surveyed were between the ages of the ages of 35 and 49,” the associate dean remarks, “but there have been plenty of students that are older than that on campus as well.” Very often, she adds, they are “the first in their families to be attending college. They are so committed. But the driving force is not that they only want to learn and better their lives but also be a role model for their children.”

Roberta Rogers, the assistant director of the Individualized Degree Program (IDP) at Trinity College in Hartford, has been on both sides of the academic fence. (Her mother was actually in the graduating class with Louise Fisher, who started the program in 1973.) Rogers attended Baypath College in Longmeadow, Massachusetts and then went to work at The Hartford Insurance Company. During that time, she took classes at both the University of Hartford and the University of Connecticut but still had this strong feeling that something was missing in her life.

She finally applied to Trinity. That application process was, she remembers, “the biggest hurdle….I felt that it was a long shot, and I wasn’t sure that I could bring to the table what they were looking for. I hadn’t been to school regularly for very many years.” But Rogers was accepted into the IDP in 1999; and there, at her mother’s alma mater, she found the “intellectual challenge and stimulation” she’d been missing. The classes were small, and she “felt that it was easy to engage with the professors.” That she mattered. “Every school isn’t right for every person. But Trinity was right for me.”

During that time, Rogers went through “a couple of developments that were personal and extremely painful” – her child’s serious illness, which necessitated regular trips up to a Boston hospital, and her divorce. “Both things could’ve derailed the course,” she reflects, “but my friends [in the IDP] and faculty mentors helped me stay the course. They provided support and encouragement. I was able to do teaching-assistantship and research-assistantship work for credit as opposed to carrying a full course load. It gave me the flexibility I needed. And that happens regularly with our students.”

Jan Neuberger, who graduated from Trinity in 2013, also spoke enthusiastically about the IDP. The actress was in the original company of “Wicked” when it hit her that the experience “was killing my heart and soul.” Hoping to get into a classical drama program, she searched for “a graduate program that didn’t require an undergraduate degree.” No luck. Then she happened upon the IDP.

The program changed her “in a very fundamental way,” she says, “because it opened so many windows.” And she, like Rogers, came away from it feeling that she had received “a tremendous amount of faculty support.”

Neuberger was 56 when she entered Trinity. There has always been “a wide range of ages” in the IDP, according to Dr. Diane Zannoni, the director. A member of the IDP council back in the 1970s, she has seen the program through a number of changes over the years. Students aren’t just focusing on their college coursework, she observes – they’re combining school with work and family. And many of them are coming in from other institutions with “an accumulation of credits. It could have been from a community college or a college they went to for three years. The idea is degree completion.”

Of course, she still sees many non-traditional students who are just starting out. But she sees “more people coming having already started. Many, many of our students are mothers with young children – not young women who are staying at home but who are working [and] with children.”

There’s another difference, says Rogers. The students entering the program are “more self-directed steadily moving women. I see more women who are returning younger.” And what’s more, they’re “very supportive to other women. I hear our female students talking about it, and they really appreciate it. I think it stimulates generosity.”


mssnoopy2003 said...

I really enjoyed attending my community college. I was surrounded by the younger generation but there were a few of us old codgers!!

T. J. Banks said...

Thank you, Cordy! Sharing your experience brings a whole other facet to this piece.

Gwynn Rogers said...

Yes, I too can relate to the challenges of going back to school. After my divorce I enrolled in Business classes. I was working, caring for my two kids, and going to school. Ultimately, the stress put me in the hospital. Unfortunately, I didn't complete my degree but I was in the Honor Society the year I was back in school. Going to school at 40 is much different than going to school at 18.

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks for sharing that, Gwynn. My mother-in-law had a similar experience when she went back for her Master's in library science. It was just too much for her on top of everything else.

Susan Scott said...

What an inspiring story Tammy thank you. Hats off to these stalwart women who strive even among the difficulties of it all.

T. J. Banks said...

Thank YOU, Susan! I agree with you 100%. One of the most inspiring stories I heard was that of a woman in her late 70s - early 80s going back to college...but that's worthy of a column all its own!