Going to School

What does it mean to start college for the first time as an older student? Read on for expert advice and to learn how three Georgians started and stuck with college.

By Kinsey Lee Clark

Stephanie Rooks, who completed her bachelor’s degree as a mom of three, understands how adult learners have to juggle schedules and overcome other hurdles when going back to school.

Now, she’s dean of adult education at Gwinnett Technical College. When people consider earning their GED and going to college and ask her, “Can I do it?” she understands their uncertainty.

“It doesn’t matter what degree you’re getting, where you’re at,” said Rooks, who earned her degree in 1999. “We all have the same insecurities, and that makes us all relatable.”

Realizing you’re not alone may be the first step to achieving your higher education goals. In fact, from 2005-2010, Atlanta experienced one of the highest increases—nearly 7,000—in full-time college enrollment by people aged 35 or older, according to the 2013 Business Higher Education Council rankings book.

Many circumstances, including poor grades, lack of financial means, marriage and children can keep individuals from starting college right out of high school. “Life happens,” says Vivolyn Ferguson.

As Gwinnett Tech’s Transition Specialist, Ferguson works with adult learners who have earned their GEDs and wish to pursue a degree.

“For whatever reason, they couldn’t get into college, but they realize that, at this point, they want something else,” she said. “They might think they lack the skills that are needed to be in college. I inspire them to look at their options. I think a lot of the time students aren’t aware of what their options are.”

Finding the confidence to become a student again can be difficult, Ferguson said.

“Often times, students will look at the bigger picture and, sometimes, that becomes a little intimidating,” she said. “I tell students, let’s start, and let’s look at today and then tomorrow. Break that bigger picture into smaller goals.”

The state’s “Go Back. Move Ahead.” campaign seeks to make it easier for Georgians to complete a degree. The program offers an easier process for transferring earned college credits, choosing online and on-campus course options, and receiving help with career planning.

Schools want to help their students graduate. Whether those students are 18 or 48 doesn’t matter, said Kessa Eason, an advisor at Central Georgia Technical College.

“I do see quite a few of my students throughout the year, and they’re telling me that they’re enjoying it, and everything is okay,” she said. “It’s a great feeling because you remember them coming in, and how nervous they were.”

Three Georgia women who each waited 15 years or more to start college discussed the difficulty, but also the satisfaction, of obtaining a degree and their tips for adult learners. Each is a mother, a veteran member of the workforce and now, also, a college graduate.

SIDEBARS (3)

FINDING BALANCE

Name: Erika Dillingham

Started: 2008, age 36

Graduated: 2015, age 43

Degrees: Two bachelor’s degrees in political science and English from Georgia Gwinnett College. She graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA.

Job: Art and volunteer services intern, The Carter Center, Atlanta

The challenges: I walked around like a zombie a lot. I tried to find a way to, not only balance my responsibilities with school and work, but also to find time to balance my down time. It was really hard to find a balance. I made it through it, but I can’t honestly say that I was completely in balance in terms of my life, work and school.

Her cheerleaders: The greatest amount of support that I felt was from my professors and my fellow students, truthfully. The education model at GGC is phenomenal in the sense that they have this interactive dynamic between the faculty and staff and the students that I can’t imagine any other place having. That system, to me, is irreplaceable. There were so many times that I just wanted to give up and throw in the towel, but I had so much encouragement from my professors.

What she would do differently: The Academic Enhancement Center is a wonderful resource for students. I suffered from severe anxiety about taking algebra. When I finally did take algebra, it probably would have been a good idea for me to sit down with somebody in the AEC, but I didn’t because I was really stubborn, and I just wanted to prove that I could do it on my own. And I ended up with an A in the class, but it was a struggle.

Best advice: Just pace yourself and know that there is an end in sight. When you get to that end, it’s going to be extremely satisfying, and it will open doors.

ENTERING A MALE-DOMINATED FIELD

Name: Beverly Edwards

Started: 2013, age 33

Graduated: 2015, age 35

Degree: Associate degree in industrial systems technology from North Georgia Technical College. She was inducted into the National Technical Honor Society.

Job: Preventative maintenance technician, TI Automotive in Lavonia

The challenges: Trying to remember things that I hadn’t studied since high school. Also, being an adult learner, I actually set my bar pretty high to try to overcome obstacles. I’ve always been an overachiever. I got a nickname that kind of carried on throughout the whole two years because I would always get things done quickly—“Try Hard.” The guys that I met in my first class (called me that), and that’s kind of carried on with me. My advisor calls me that now, too.

What sets her apart: I’m a woman entering in a man’s field. I’ve been basically the only female in all my (industrial systems technology) classes. It really didn’t bother me. I went there to learn. I went there to pursue a career that excited me—that I look forward to doing for the rest of my life. So, being the only female in the class really didn’t bother me because they treated me as one of the guys anyway. It shouldn’t matter, you know, what age you are or if you’re male or female. If you want to go into that specific career, I say go for it.

Best advice: Even if you have to wait until you’re 25 or 30, if you find the career that you can see yourself doing for the rest of your life, take that step to get your education for it because you won’t regret it. I know I haven’t.

SACRIFICING HOBBIES

Name: Sylvia Myers

Started: 2007, age 45

Graduated: 2014, age 52

Degrees: Applied bachelor’s degree in business management and bachelor’s in information technology from Middle Georgia College. She graduated with a 4.0 GPA and was named the college’s 2014 President’s Scholar.

Job: Sales manager at Exit Success Realty in Warner Robins; owner and managing broker of Warner Robins Property Management

The challenges: You come home; you’re cooking dinner; you’re cleaning the house; you’re working; you have responsibilities; and then, on top of that, you have to layer four different classes, and some of them may be very difficult. I didn’t have any hobbies during that time. I quit reading books. I quit writing. I quit drawing. My classes became my hobby, my pastime. You have to sacrifice the other things that fill your time.

What she learned: I felt like I was wearing a label everywhere I went that said, “Nontraditional Student,” and I learned that that’s really not true. The longer I spent there, the more I realized that I’m not nontraditional. I’m taking the same classes. I’m studying. I’ve got the same goals. The only difference between me and the other student standing next to me is I’ve been on Earth longer than they have.

What she would do over again: When I was working (at Bank of America), I had Spanish at the same time that I had microeconomics, international economics and then another class—something crazy like that. You would find yourself, about two or three weeks into that, drowning. Once you see (the teachers’) schedule for classes and testing and projects and how intense it’s going to be, you kind of have a feel for whether you’re going to be able to do it or not. I had to drop classes. That was the down side.

Best advice: Whatever obstacle you think is in your way to go back to college—if that’s really what you want to do—just get over it. Anyone can go back at any age. Especially in the state of Georgia, where, oh my goodness, we have grants. (Myers used the Pell Grant and a grant from American Financial.) You can just about cover books and tuition out of community college with little or no effort.

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