Life

“You’re never too old for school.”

By FRED KRONER
fred@mahometnews.com

Not all college students fall into the demographic of recent high school graduate who is continuing their education while in their teenage years.

Adults who return to school face a variety of challenges and hurdles as they re-adjust to the classroom after leaving full-time employment in the working world.

They often possess what they did not have in their younger years, a motivated drive to better themselves.

***

Anthony Hooker works at Parkland College as the adult re-entry admissions advisor.

It’s a job he has held now for five years.

“My (student) population has gone down a little as the economy has improved,” Hooker said.

As he tracks those enrolled in his program, Hooker finds an interesting trend.

“My students’ GPA is higher,” Hooker said. “It’s a combination of knowing their time is finite, and mom and dad are not picking up the tab, so there’s no time to waste frivolously.

“Most have clearly defined goals.”

The re-entry office has been a staple at Parkland for three decades.

“It’s quite a leap of faith (returning to school as an adult),” Hooker said. “That’s why this office was created, to help them through the roadblocks.

“My job is so smooth out the speed bumps.”

He is currently working with about 200 students.

“The two main impediments are finances and a sense of isolation, thinking they are the only adult at Parkland.”

In fact, the average age of Parkland students is above 25.

One of the school’s organizations is the Adult Student Club.

“It’s a chance to network with folks who are going through the same things,” Hooker said.

The group has met three times this fall. Though 29 students are on the email list, fewer than 10 have attended the meetings.

Hooker understands.

“Adult students want to go to class and go home,” he said.

Here are the stories of four area women who are currently attending classes after years in the workforce.

***

Monticello native Melinda McColgan will soon turn 39.

She has worked in the food service profession since age 14 and left a management position to enroll at Parkland College.

As she considered embarking on a different career direction, she initially looked into a job at the University of Illinois.

When she learned that she would not be hired, McColgan was simultaneously presented with another option.

“The same day I received the (rejection) email from the U of I, I received an email from the financial aid office at Parkland, stating that my FAFSA had been processed,” McColgan said.

“So, my wife looked at me and said, “Babe, if you can go back to school, go back to school.’ “

She still had to make sure it was doable from a financial standpoint.

“Things are a bit tight, but we are making it,” McColgan said. “If we wouldn’t have been able to afford for me to go back to school, I wouldn’t be there right now.

“We do miss the amount of money I was bringing home with my management job, but our future and my sanity are more important.”

In addition to school, she is working two part-time jobs.

When the door to college was partially opened,  it wasn’t an immediate slam-dunk.

“I had to go through an appeal process with financial aid, because I was on academic suspension,” McColgan said.

Seven years ago, at age 31, she was a first-time Parkland College student.

“I had started in the spring semester that year (2011), and did pretty well,” McColgan said.

That fall, however, she did not complete the full term for what she described as “personal issues.”

McColgan regained her full-time status one year ago, thinking she would major in alternative energy resource engineering.

Thanks to an influential professor, Dr. Willie Fowler, she switched paths by mid-term and committed to political science.

She has a clear vision of what area she wants to focus her life’s work.

“I would like to follow the law route,” McColgan said, “and fight for social justice, but I also want to try and change the way the public defender system works. There is such a high conviction rate in this country, and 94 percent of those convictions are plea bargains.”

As someone who was involved with the judicial system in the past, she understands how the process works.

“What it comes down to is the fact that poor people get stuck with a public defender, and public defenders really only strike deals with the state’s attorney, rather than actually defending the client,” McColgan said. “For example, say a rich guy goes out and steals a car for whatever reason, with his riches, he can afford to buy a lawyer and will probably get out of doing any time for his crime, and most likely walk away with a fine.

“Now, if a poor person was to steal the same car, for the same whatever reason, that poor person will have to have a public defender appointed to him, and will probably walk away not only with a bunch of fines, but also probably a couple of years in prison, along with the felony charge on his record for the rest of his life, and the stigma that comes attached to being a felon.”

She is not suggesting that everyone without the economic means to hire private lawyers are innocent, but added, “I feel like poor people don’t get a fair shake when it comes to their defense. I feel like it is kind of an issue of a violation of constitutional rights where the right to a fair and speedy trial, as well as the right to counsel.

“Most of the time, a person will take a plea bargain because they either get scared into it, or they get tired of sitting in limbo, waiting to find out what’s going to happen to them. They get told that if they don’t accept the state’s deal, then if they take it to trial, they will lose and get the maximum sentence. A lot of people who didn’t even commit the crime in question get stuck with the charge because of instances like this. In my opinion, it is the poor people who get screwed, and I want to change that.”

Her past played a significant role in shaping what she wants for the future.

“A big part of the reason for my choosing the career choice that I have is the fact that I have been through the system a few times,” she said. “Each time, I couldn’t afford a lawyer, so I had to get a public defender. I believe that if I would have had a paid lawyer, the outcomes would have been quite different.”

The issue extends beyond public defenders.

“I believe it is also a geographical issue,” McColgan said. “Someone from a bigger community will have different results than someone from a small community. Why wouldn’t it be equal across the judicial system?

“This is something that should be addressed. I keep tossing around the idea of going and trying to teach adult basic education in the prisons. I believe that if inmates have the opportunity to get an education during their incarceration, they will be less likely to return to prison and more likely to transition back into society successfully.”

McColgan will complete requirements for her associate’s degree next spring. She is ready and willing to make a difference.

“No matter where my degree takes me, I want to make a positive impact on the world,” said McColgan, who hopes to continue her education at the University of Illinois.

“Ultimately, I would like to go even further and become ‘Dr. Melinda McColgan,’ “ she said. “Either way, I do not plan to go back to food service for the rest of my life. I have had about enough of that.”

She has always valued education, and that feeling is unchanged.

“I can’t say that schooling means more to me now than it did in the past, mainly because it has always meant a lot to me,” she said. “I find that I am more focused than before and that is due to my drive to get into a different profession than food service.

“With my colored past, I have a hard time finding employment that isn’t food service. That was the main reason I decided to go back to school and get a degree. I feel like employers will take me more seriously if I have a degree. The vision I have for my future drives me to endure the hardships along the way because these hardships seem minor compared with the hardships I have faced throughout my life.”

***

Thirty-year-old Katelyn Watterson Badger grew up in Seymour and now lives in Mahomet.

She attended Parkland College for two years after graduating from M-S in 2007.

Badger took a variety of courses as she shifted her major from massage therapy to occupational therapy to respiratory therapy.

Finally, she took a break from school.

“I changed my major so many times because I just didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Badger said. “I quit school in 2009 and focused more on work at Hobby Lobby. I had my own department there and was also working as the back-up bookkeeper.”

School took on a new meaning in 2011.

“My mom (the former Deb Cooley) decided to go back to school to get her associate’s, so I went back and we both had a few of the same classes,” Badger said, “which was fun because we wouldn’t help each other with homework, we would make it a competition of who was going to get the better grade.”

Neither woman finished their degree.

“I ended up quitting again in October, 2012, along with my mom because she got sick,” Badger said.

Her mother, Deb Cooley Watterson, passed away in December 2012.

“I then just kept working and didn’t go back to school,” Badger said.

Her marriage to Mark Badger in 2015 marked a time for change and reflection.

“My husband was encouraging me to go back to school,” Katelyn Badger said. “I was just getting burned out at my job and Mark knew that I needed a change.”

In June, 2016, she quit her job and re-enrolled at Parkland.

“I am very fortunate that we can live on just one salary and take this step in my career,” Katelyn Badger said. “I decided that I liked bookkeeping quite a bit, so I decided to get my associate’s in accounting.”

To better ensure success in the classroom, Badger is not working outside the home.

“Mark and I decided that right now, my job is to get good grades,” she said. “I study a lot, read the textbooks, and take care of the housework.”

Katelyn Badger will earn her degree next spring and then, “I will begin the journey to find a job,” she said, taking note that she made sure not to overload herself with coursework.

“It has taken me a bit to get the associate’s, but my husband and I thought it best to take a few classes each semester to make sure I get good grades,” she said. “I have explored the option to get my bachelor’s in accounting or business administration, but I may wait for that.”

She has already started researching potential employment.

“I keep a lookout for jobs that are hiring all the time and see what they require you to know such as, Microsoft Office, Data Entry, and QuickBooks knowledge,” she said.

Katelyn Badger has no regrets about returning to the classroom.

“You’re never too old for school,” she said. “School definitely means more.

“In high school, I was a C average student. I really didn’t care about school, I just wanted out.”

After nearly a decade in the workforce, her attitude has changed.

“College is so much better than high school,” she said. “You meet a lot of people in your major and form study groups and really get to know each person.

“You form so many connections and your network grows, that can be very beneficial. The long-term vision as a student is to get good grades, graduate, and to get a good paying job.

“The other students really help out when you’re feeling down or like you just can’t do it.”

There were steps she needed to take on her own.

“The biggest adjustment was learning how to study,” Badger said. “I never really studied in high school so, that was a curveball for me. The first few years at Parkland, I did not do well and it contributed to me quitting and coming back.

“Now that I know what I really want to do as a career, I am more serious about studying and making the grades. Last semester, I made the Dean’s List. First time ever and I was so proud.”

The decision to return her status to ‘student’ is only one of several challenging aspects she will face.

“Transitioning (to a new job) will be just getting up and leaving my dogs (Archie and Minnie) for a longer period of time,” Badger said. “They are really like children to me.

“The best part will be getting out and meeting new people. The big challenge will be the anxiety waiting for an interview, and the first day on the job.

“I am terrified that I will go blank and do a horrible job and get fired. I guess that can be everyone’s fear, but I am always afraid of failing.”

***

Faith Swartzendruber, 35, took a literal leap of faith.

She left Mahomet, her job and her friends in July to head to an out-of-state college program that will take three-plus years to complete.

A massage therapist and a former elementary school teacher, Swartzendruber is now studying to be a chiropractor.

“Chiropractic has always been on my radar,” Swartzendruber said. “I’ve gone to a chiropractor since I was 9.”

For years, it was an interest she felt unable to pursue.

“I thought it was cool, but it was never something I thought I could do,” Swartzendruber said. “I didn’t have the confidence.”

She wasn’t seeing what others were observing.

At a regularly-scheduled chiropractic appointment in April, she heard her doctor say, “You’d be a great chiropractor.”

It was the nudge Swartzendruber needed.

“I could feel something slip in my body and turn the key,” she said. “I just knew this is the next big thing.

“It was like something shifted in my spirit. I had zero qualms. I could feel the door open.”

She is entering a profession she believes in.

“Because I’ve gone to the chiropractor, I’ve seen the benefit of it,” Swartzendruber said. “My family has always valued the holistic approach.

“What are the things I can do to heal my body? We’ve used chiropractors as the first line of health care. I got relief and could identify with their philosophy.”

Swartzendruber visited three schools and settled on Palmer College of Chiropractic, in Davenport, Iowa.

Her practical side prompted Swartzendruber to consider the bigger picture, notably the amount of student loan debt she would face following 39 more months in school.

There were other areas that caused consternation.

“I thought I would be the only one in my age bracket,” Swartzendruber said. “I was worried I’d only have 22-year-olds to hang out with.”

She does, in fact, have classmates who are in their early 20s, but Swartzendruber has also met two other students who share her same birth year.

“It’s lovely to have people my age,” she said.

She lives in student housing, but finds there’s a limited amount of time to socialize.

In the fall term, she took eight classes and was at school more than seven hours a day.

Though her school day ended at 2:45 p.m., she faced an estimated four to six hours of homework at night.

“Part of the process was I had to relearn how to be a student again,” Swartzendruber said, “and take in a huge load of information and process it.

“I felt like I had a brick wall in my brain the first six weeks.”

Swartzendruber is accustomed to a busy schedule.

While teaching full-time at M-S, she attended grad school for two years while finishing her master’s degree in education.

“I love to learn,” she said. “I know how to be a student.”

Swartzendruber has no regrets about not starting down this path a decade ago.

“If I had started at 25, I would not have finished,” she predicted. “I didn’t have the inner strength then to do a doctorate program.

“I didn’t believe in me enough to do the program. Now, I have  more resolve and more inner core strength.”

She is surrounded by a strong network of supportive friends and family, who have helped to ease the transition.

“No one has said to me, ‘What are you doing,’ “ Swartzendruber said. “Everyone has said, ‘You’ll be an amazing chiropractor.’ “

She is looking forward to starting into her new career.

“This has been the most rewarding thing I have ever done,” Swartzendruber said. “I’m excited about the program and what I will do after my program.”

***

Amanda Stevens has a full plate.

The mother of two daughters (soon-to-be 13 and 8) is the owner of Southern Charm Day Spa, in St. Joseph.

She continues with her business as she works her way through school.

“I have owned the spa for 16 years now and have been a massage therapist for 17-plus years,” Stevens said. “I also have received my license in Esthetics and Cosmetology more recently.

“My end goal is to be a Nurse Practitioner.”

At 37, she is facing about eight more years of schooling.

“I enjoy a challenge and do better when I am busy,” Stevens said.

After completing her coursework at Parkland, Stevens plans to finish her bachelor’s degree and then enter master’s and doctorate programs.

“The challenge will change per semester, I am sure,” she said.

Stevens said she is much more serious about her studies now than in years past.

“I find school does mean more to me now than when I was younger,” she said. “I want to learn the material long-term versus just for a grade, at this point in my life.

“My long-term goal of receiving my Nurse Practitioner is driven by my current clients. I tend to do more medical massage and really enjoy thinking outside the box to help my clients.

“I am hoping to help my clients further. I want to fill a void that many of them are experiencing in our current healthcare system. I am hoping to add my health services to the spa as a Direct Primary Care Provider in St. Joseph.”

Many of her challenges are obvious adjusting her schedule to handle all of her regular clients while still finding time to care for her children, and do homework.

“The financial aspect is a little harder,” Stevens said. “You can always plan, but you can never really plan for the unexpected.

“Being self-employed does help so I can adjust my own schedule. Most of my clients have been with me almost 10 years and are very understanding.”

Most also know her well enough to recognize and understand her ambitions.

“In fact, they are always wondering what new project I will be starting and were not surprised at all with me going back to school,” said Stevens, who has help with the clients at the spa.

“I will continue to run Southern Charm Day Spa and Salon along with our newest addition of the Suites, during school,” she said. “The most important part is having a good support system and learning to ask for help.

“The asking for help is still something I am working on and have gotten a lot better at.”

After this semester, Stevens will have 90 hours of college credit.

“I am so glad I waited until now to finish my nursing degree,” she said. “I really know what I want to do with it and am very focused to get it done.”

***

The fact that so many adults are successfully back in school — navigating an assortment of obstacles — should serve as an inspiration for others who are considering it.

“There are folks doing it, and if others have an interest, they can, too,” Parkland’s Anthony Hooker said.

Monticello native Melinda McColgan is grateful for the Parkland program and will continue to be an ardent advocator.

“I highly recommend that if anyone is interested in going back to school, to go and speak to Anthony Hooker at Parkland College,” she said. “He is the Adult Re-entry Advisor and can point you in the right directions, as well as put you in touch with the various advisors and counselors to help you every step of the way. Parkland College is an excellent, affordable and diverse institution for higher learning and their faculty is some of the best I have ever met.

“Education is very important. Only you can stop yourself from achieving your dreams.”

McColgan — and the others — are examples of students serving as mentors while demonstrating the value of the lessons they’ve learned

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