Common reasons for returning to the college include job loss, professional development, personal enrichment
By Margaret McCormick
Walk across a college campus in Central New York and you’ll see late-teen and 20-something students chatting in clusters, talking on cell phones and dashing to class.
It’s a sea of young people in denim toting bulging daybags and backpacks, punctuated, increasingly, by men and women with laugh lines and touches of gray.
And they’re not members of the faculty.
Welcome to the college scene of today, where “non-traditional’’ students over the age of 50 make up a growing segment of students returning to college, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics.
Loss of employment and the unstable economy of the last several years have many people in their “pre-retirement years” rethinking what remains of their working lives and putting off indefinitely any plans for retirement. According to a recent Gallup Poll, at least 20 percent of would-be retirees plan to work part-time in their “Golden Years’’ to supplement their pensions and savings.
Kristine Duffy, associate vice president of enrollment services at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, says that the college, with an enrollment of just over 12,000, witnessed a 20 percent increase in students over the age of 40 seeking degree or certificates from fall 2008 to fall 2009.
Common reasons for returning to the college classroom include job loss and subsequent career change, professional development and personal enrichment. And colleges across the region have come to recognize the needs of non-traditional students — who often juggle a job or jobs and family — by offering certificate and degree programs that can be completed in the evening or by distance, thanks to a computer.
Duffy says adult learners are coming into the classroom armed with confidence, life lessons to share and an interest in taking part in campus life — not merely taking a class and heading home. In addition to an active Non-Traditional Students Club, several adult learners hold leadership positions in OCC’s Student Association, she says.
“Mature students’’ returning to college tend to find they are more focused than the first time around, and more determined to succeed. They take meticulous notes and maintain to-do lists (lest they forget anything), dive right into homework assignments rather than leave them to the last minute and are known to show up early for conversation as well as class.
“Certainly the advantage is you come into the classroom with a whole lot of life experience,’’ Duffy says. “Adult learners are usually not as afraid to ask questions.
“Faculty members frequently report how much they enjoy having adult learners in class. The older students say it’s nice to be in an atmosphere where there is a younger spirit and with people are a little more wide-eyed about the world. What we hear from the more traditional age students, so to speak, is that they grow from the experience, too. Both benefit from each other.’’
Following is a look at three Central New Yorkers, women over the age of 50, who have returned to college — and give the experience excellent grades.
Susan R. Querreveld
“Nothing to fear”
Susan Querreveld hadn’t been in a classroom in more than 30 years when she started working on her BSN (Bachelor of Science in nursing) at LeMoyne College in Syracuse two years ago. Now, you can’t get her out of the classroom.
Querreveld, 59, of Clay, had logged 32 years as registered nurse in the operating room at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center when she shifted gears and was named a staff educator for the operating rooms in the SJHHC network. Her experience gained her the job, but it immediately got her thinking about going back to school.
“Once I became part of the education department, it became very clear to me that I needed my degree,’’ Querreveld says. “I was surrounded by very smart, accomplished RNs with not only their BSN but also a master’s degree. I wanted to be as smart and well-rounded as them. They are great role models and mentors for me.’’
Querreveld says it can be challenging to balance her work, home and student lives, but she’s already thinking about taking things to the next level: a master’s degree.
• What’s the hardest part about being an older student? Juggling a full-time job, caring for my daughter, caring for my home and studying (which is my first priority because adult learners always need to attain an “A” in every course.)
• What’s the best part about being an older student? I am teaching every day and it is wonderful to sit in a classroom and have someone else teach me something new.
• What do you plan to do with your degree? Go on for my master’s degree.
• What’s your best advice for other “elders” considering a return to college? Just do it! All of the fears I had dissolved once I sat in my first class. My fears were many: fear of not fitting in, fear of not being able to keep up with younger students, fear of failing, fear of being the only adult learner in the classroom.
Sharron M. Glass
“A student for life”
Sharron Glass, 58, of Cazenovia, has worked in childcare for more than 30 years. But she still has a lot to learn about her chosen field.
She loves reading, running and riding motorcycles around Madison County with her husband, John. But her true passion, she says, is learning.
• What made you decide to go back to school? My love for knowledge is what guided me back into taking courses at Cazenovia College. I have an associate’s degree and I am so excited about earning a bachelors degree in early childhood education and program administration.
• What’s the hardest part about being an older student? At first the hardest part about being an older student was being surrounded by younger students. I thought I would feel very uncomfortable. Instead I made new friends who helped me out with anything I was not clear about.
• What’s the best part about being an older student? The best part of being an older student is I am constantly learning about subjects related to the field I love, which is early childhood education, and the students and faculty are there for you. I have never met so many kind and helpful individuals.
• What do you plan to do with your degree? When I graduate, I plan on pursuing a graduate degree in special education and continue on for my doctorate. I plan on becoming a student for the rest of my life.
• What’s your best advice for other “elders” considering a return to college? My best advice for “elders” is to try not to be afraid of standing out because of your age or because you might think you are to old to go back to college. There is such a great feeling of confidence when you expand your knowledge and meet people from all different backgrounds and nationalities.
“Now is the time”
Theresa “Teri” Richardson always thought about a career in nursing, but the timing for classes — between job and family and home responsibilities — never seemed quite right.
Richardson, 53, of Chittenango, works full-time as a licensed practical nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center in Syracuse and has been pursuing a nursing degree “three-quarter time’’ for four years at Onondaga Community College. She and her husband, Don, have two grown children and one grandchild.
When she’s not consumed with class work, Richardson and her husband like riding motorcycles, camping in their recreational vehicle, gardening and spending time with family and friends. Richardson also likes escaping with a good book — preferably not a textbook.
• What made you decide to go back to school? When I lost my job … I was entitled to retraining funding. … I took the opportunity to return to school, entered a BOCES licensed practical nurse (LPN) program and within one year had the training needed to become licensed.
I then began my career at St. Joseph’s. After working at the hospital for a couple of years I decided it was time to take my career as a nurse to the next level and began taking pre-requisite classes at OCC to become a registered nurse. I am now matriculated into the RN program and plan to complete the program by May 2011.
• What is the hardest part about being an older student? One is that as an older learner we set much higher expectations for ourselves. This is not a bad thing, but we do not want to accept anything but perfection and work very hard to achieve the “A” all the time. This puts a lot of pressure on you as a student.
Another difficult thing is that we have to balance all the other interests in our life while trying to stay on track with our studies. We put a lot on “hold” until this class or this clinical rotation is complete. … Sometimes the days are not long enough and I run out of energy before all obligations are complete, but some how I manage.
• What’s the best part about being an older student? As an older learner, you have life experiences to draw from. This experience helps keep you more focused and goal driven and things make more sense to you. Plus, you are a student because you know what you want and where you want to go. As a teenaged college student, many times these kids are just in school because that’s what everyone else expects of them, but they really do not have a clear idea of what their goals are.
• What do you plan to do with your degree? Hopefully, transition into an RN role on the oncology unit at St. Joseph’s — with the knowledge that I have the ability to take my degree and do all sorts of things, because as an RN there are endless opportunities to use this knowledge, whether it be in an acute care setting, ambulatory setting, home care, industries like insurance, school nursing, private duty. This degree opens up a huge array of opportunities.
• What’s your best advice for other “elders” considering a return to college? Just do it!’ If you have always wanted to pursue a college education, now is the time. It is never too late. It is rewarding. You don’t want to let life happen and in the end regret that you didn’t fulfill your personal goals.