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The unique challenges that adult students face when returning to school

Evan Bourtis
Christine Bailey during her days as a St. John Fisher College student.

Christine Bailey graduated from college at the age of 37, while raising her teenage daughter and working. Sometimes they’d even do homework together.

"It was a lot of late nights and a lot of early mornings. There really was no down time,” said Bailey, who graduated from St. John Fisher College in 2014. One day, Bailey took her daughter, who was 16 at the time, with her to school. "At that time, she was actually closer in age to some of my classmates than they were to me,” Bailey recalled.

According to Christopher Keffer, Fisher’s coordinator of adult services and an academic adviser, many current and previous adult students have similar stories. Many are veterans, parents, and have previous work experience.  

“Adult students may be caring for kids," Keffer said. “They may be caring for aging parents as well. Adult students are often working, sometimes full-time, sometimes multiple jobs. Remarkably, they may be both parents and spouses and successful academic students.”

Currently, St. John Fisher has 274 adult undergraduate students, defined by any student who is the age 24 or older, according to Keffer. Keffer has seen how adult students’ life experiences have helped them excel as students and manage their time well. "I think the accumulation of all of those experiences helps students gain some perspective and understand the difference between what is a really big issue and what is something that is small,” he explained. 

One of Fisher’s current adult students is Sean O’Leary. O’Leary, who is 32 and is from Pittsford, first enrolled in Syracuse University in 2006 and transferred to Fisher in 2008. Before completing his degree, O’Leary was offered a full-time job in web design and marketing at a local TV station in Syracuse. In 2011, O’Leary was offered a similar job closer to home for the Rochester CBS affiliate, WROC, where he worked for a year before moving on to another job.

"Really, what was happening is that I was getting job, after job, after job. And last summer, that luck ran out,” he explained. “The agency I was working with started to go under a little bit and they had to let some people off, so I decided that it was a good opportunity to go back to school."

O’Leary decided to re-enroll at Fisher, majoring in digital cultures and technology. O’Leary said that, before he returned to college, he was worried about the fact that he would be much older than many of the students in his classes.

"I think that there's a little bit of social anxiety that comes along with it. When you're a little older and look back at what a college student think of the young, cool kid. So I think that could be intimidating when you're a little older," O’Leary added.

However, O’Leary said that the students and the campus community were very welcoming towards him, which helped him get over his fears. Although he still thinks about the fact that he is older than the average college student, O’Leary thinks about it much less because he feels like he is part of the campus community. "I don't feel completely out of touch like I thought it would...The community is really great and everyone was really welcoming from day one. And that really helped me get over it, whatever fears I did have," he said.

O’Leary hopes that earning his degree will open new opportunities for him by getting him job interviews and providing him with knowledge related to his career interests. “If I could do it all again, the one thing I'd want to learn is, listen, having a degree is very important," O’Leary commented.

Another current adult student, Ernesto Pardo, served on active duty in the Navy before attending Fisher. Pardo, who is 35 and lives in Rochester, graduated from high school and went on to study criminal justice at Monroe Community College. However, he disliked his classes at MCC and didn’t believe that a career in criminal justice was right for him.

After MCC, one of Pardo’s friends convinced him to join the Navy. During his time in the Navy, Pardo worked on computer-based security. Pardo also took classes while serving and was able to use those plus his class credits from MCC to earn a four year degree in intelligence studies. "Once you’re at a certain place, it's like a nine to five job and then, if you have time, you can take a class," Pardo explained.

After completing his Navy service, Pardo came to Fisher in spring 2017. Pardo made the decision to return to college because he found his passion for political science.

Pardo likes the students and professors at Fisher, but like O’Leary, he also thinks a lot about the fact that he is older than most students in his classes. "I like it here, but graduating will make me feel so much better. Because I do feel a little out of place and I am much older than everyone else," he commented.

During his time at Fisher, one of the challenges that Pardo had to overcome was when his family’s restaurant, Three Latinos, burned down, after suspected arson. Pardo, who was one of the owners of the restaurant, said that the fire was hard on him financially and academically. "Because of what happened with our restaurant burning down, it did cause a lot of stress and my grades did suffer a lot,” Pardo said.

Pardo is still a Navy Reserve member, training part-time by participating in military drills one weekend per month and active Navy training for two weeks out of the year. He also helps with military funerals. Pardo says that serving in the Navy reserve is a good break from the normal civilian life. "You still get to have a normal civilian life, but still have that military side too," he explained.

Like Pardo, it took Bailey a while to find her educational niche. Right out of high school, she began taking some classes at MCC, while working in the hospitality industry. When Bailey moved to Pennsylvania, she also took some courses at a community college there as well as Temple University, but her work as a restaurant manager prevented her from completing her degree.

Credit Evan Bourtis
Christine Bailey works at the St. John Fisher campus library.

By 2008, Bailey had returned to Rochester, and made the decision to continue her education at MCC. "My idea when I went back to MCC was that I was just going to get my associate’s degree and just call it a day, because I didn't want to take out that extra student loan, that extra financial burden, at that age,” she said.

However, a professor at MCC convinced her that getting a four-year degree would greatly improve her life. Bailey made the decision to attend Fisher and major in media and communication. Although Bailey is glad that she got her degree, she said that the financial and time burden were difficult on her and her family.

Just like O’Leary, Bailey, at first, was worried about being the oldest person in her classes. As she pointed out, Fisher had fewer adult students than MCC. "There really weren't that many [adult students] at Fisher,” she said. “And every once in a while, it would make me feel like I stuck out like a sore thumb a little, being an adult and a member of that small population."

However, Bailey soon began to realize that the professors and students treated her like any regular college student, which helped her to think less about the age gap between her and her classmates. Bailey also got to meet other adult students on campus, some of whom she still keeps in touch with. "Don't be worried about any age differences. You're going to bring things to the younger people that's going to enrich their lives in different ways that you might not expect and vice versa,” Bailey said.

One of the things that Bailey struggled with when returning to school was technology use, especially when it came video editing and design work. A poster with a quote from the Star Wars character Yoda: "Do or Do not, there is no try," gave Bailey motivation when trying to overcome challenges in her time as an adult student. "I was sitting there, trying to do video editing, and I was just like, oh my gosh. And I look up and I see that on the wall, and I was like, Yes! Because that is exactly my motto right now,” she said. “There is no try. And that's just the attitude I took with everything that I did at St. John Fisher."

One of the things that Bailey did during her time at Fisher was join the PRIMA group, a student-run advertising and public relations agency on campus, and the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA). Bailey believes that she learned a lot from being involved in these organizations and that the connections she made through the organizations helped her to network with companies in the Rochester area. These organizations also allowed Bailey to become more involved in the campus community. "If I wasn't involved in those organizations, I don't think I would have had the same experience, if I just kind of punched the clock at school and had gone home," she said.

Currently, Bailey is using her degree to work as a marketing and public relations manager for the local restaurant group Max Rochester. “I wish that more people had the courage to do it [get their degree], because it's really only going to make your life better,” Bailey added.

O’Leary is also involved with PRIMA and will be the creative director of the organization next year. O’Leary is glad that he found time to join PRIMA and believes that his work in PRIMA will help him in a future career. "I found time for it, and I'm glad I did, because, I've made good friends through the group,” O’Leary said. “I love the work that they do, and it's kind of like in PRIMA, the way that they perform is that they combine with a lot of other groups." 

This story by Evan Bourtis is part of a journalism collaboration between WXXI and St. John Fisher College, giving aspiring student journalists the opportunity to report on and create stories for WXXI listeners, viewers, and readers.