Three years ago, Stacie Waters and Michelle Olivas enrolled at Northern New Mexico College in Española (pop. 10,224) with the same goals as most college freshmen: to earn degrees and get decent jobs.
In May, Waters, 38, and Olivas, 36, graduated magna cum laude amid a chorus of cheering family members. The gold Phi Theta Kappa honor society cords adorning their graduation gowns attest to the women’s determination to get a college education despite their ages, and to the powers of friendship, too.
“It made college so much easier because we had each other to lean on,” says Waters, who earned an associate’s degree in human services and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work at Highlands University in Las Vegas, N.M. (pop. 13,753). “We’ve been like Laverne and Shirley. We just linked arms and did it.”
Olivas, a mother of four who dropped out of high school in 1993 and later earned her GED, was awarded a business administration degree and continues to pursue an accounting degree at Northern New Mexico College.
Today, 1.4 million adults, ages 30 and older, are enrolled full time in colleges and universities across the United States and make up about 12 percent of the college student population, compared with 6 percent in 1980. Another 3.4 million older students are enrolled part time, many training for a new career or upgrading job skills in the midst of the economic downturn.
Olivas and Waters began talking in early 2008 about furthering their education to improve their job prospects. At the time, Olivas worked in the gaming industry and Waters in food service. Olivas’ husband, Andy, 35, is disabled, and Waters’ husband, John, 37, recently had been laid off from his job.
They soon set their sights on careers they’d long desired—accounting for Olivas and family counseling for Waters. “It came down to, ‘Let’s do it,’” says Waters, a mother of three who graduated from high school in 1990 and went to work full time to support herself and a younger brother.
Their children were school age, so childcare wasn’t an obstacle, and they had the support of their husbands. Together, they applied for loans, grants and scholarships available to American Indian students. Olivas is Navajo and Waters is Taos.
“When you come back after so many years out of high school, you take school seriously,” Olivas says. “My family is depending on me.”
The women studied up to seven hours a day, meeting in the college library or cafeteria, then getting their families together for a pot of Waters’ red chile stew or other fare in the evening, so they could study more.
Olivas and Waters also found time to mentor younger students, visiting high schools as the college’s student ambassadors and advising fellow students on campus.
“Being older gives them wisdom,” says Sophia Espinosa, 19, who welcomed the help with essay topics and relationship issues as a freshman.
Perhaps the person most inspired by their determination, however, is Waters’ husband. “I wanted to get an education, but I always had to work,” says John, who quit school at age 14 to support himself.
“Stacie told me, ‘Now, it’s your turn.’”
In June, John became a full-time student majoring in computer software engineering at Northern New Mexico College.
Retraining and retooling
Training for better-paying jobs and more satisfying careers are among the reasons that millions of adults are returning to college or attending for the first time, some with federal job training assistance.
Steven Yeckering, 51, concluded he’d need a college degree to compete in the job market if HON Co. in Owensboro, Ky. (pop. 57,265), where he built office furniture for nearly 30 years, ever closed. In 2000, he began taking one class each semester at Owensboro Community and Technical College while working full time. When the HON plant closed last year, he became a full-time student, graduating in May with an associate’s degree in business administration.
“College seems daunting, but if you persevere, you can make it,” says Yeckering, whose tuition and books were paid through a federal program for workers who lose jobs because of increased imports.
Yeckering found a job in April at an aluminum products plant in Lewisport, Ky. (pop. 1,670), but continues taking one course each semester. “I’m trying to cover all my bases,” he says. “If this plant were to shut down, I’d be that much closer to a bachelor’s degree.”
Another older student responding to the economic slump, Dale Farrow, 42, of Cape Girardeau, Mo. (pop. 37,941), owned a construction company with eight employees in 2009 and grew weary of trying to collect payment for his work. Ready for a change, the single father applied for jobs with construction firms in Chicago, but hit a dead end.
“I’d gone through the process for one job and knew I had it, but they wouldn’t hire anyone in management without a degree,” Farrow says. “I literally sat down and cried. I felt I was wasting my life.”
Today, he is a junior at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau with a dual major in construction management and design and facilities management.
“It’s a privilege to attend school and in most classes, I excel,” says Farrow, whose weekend construction jobs pay for books and tuition. “I go above and beyond because I’m building up my portfolio.”
To help the 3,600 older students on campus, Farrow founded the Non-Traditional Student Organization and created a Facebook page where members share their experiences on the Internet. He also works with a mentoring program that matches older students with alumni.
Following her heart
Being a college freshman at age 55 was ideal for Lesley Van deMark, who graduated summa cum laude in May with a liberal arts degree from River Valley Community College in Claremont, N.H. (pop. 13,355), and is pursuing an English literature and creative writing degree at John Moore University in Liverpool, England.
“Before now, I would never have had the passion and the life experiences to draw from,” says Van deMark, 56, who worked as an interior designer but longed to be a writer. “I never had a job that fulfilled me.”
While at River Valley, she developed and led writing workshops for women prisoners and victims of domestic abuse. The Phi Theta Kappa president, who received the Presidents’ Leadership Award, also organized a book drive to stock the county prison’s library.
“I needed to follow my heart,” says Van deMark, who aspires to be an English professor. “It’s never too late to go to college. As long as you have a dream and a pulse, you can get out there and do it.”