Nontraditional Students Use Their Mason Education to Make Life Changes

Posted: July 2, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Karen Akerlof

The enrollment of older students at American colleges and universities will grow more quickly over the next decade than that of traditional-age students, according to a recent U.S. Department of Education report.

Mason already has tapped into this population — giving its “nontraditional” scholars the tools to change their lives, say students.

As a chemistry major 19 years ago, Monica Gertz, 40, became pregnant with her first child and dropped out of college to raise her daughter and climb the corporate ladder as a marketing manager for a major car rental company — putting her dreams of becoming a physician aside.

Now she spends four to five days a week doing research in a Mason biochemistry lab and is working toward her undergraduate degree in chemistry again, in pursuit of an eventual MD/PhD. “I’m here doing this because I want to do it,” says Gertz.

From 2005 to 2016, enrollment of students age 25 and older will rise by 21 percent at degree-granting institutions, compared to a 15 percent increase in enrollment of traditional-age students. This reverses the trend of the previous 15 years that was stimulated by large increases in the numbers of 18- to 24-year-olds coupled with higher rates of college enrollment, the National Center for Education Statistics reported.

“Nontraditional” is a loose term referring to students who may be older, working full time, and/or have children, and isn’t a group that is tracked specifically at Mason. The university follows age distributions of its students, however, which tell part of the story.

While the number of traditional-age students at Mason continues to rise, and along with it an increase in the university’s residential student population, Mason serves many “older” students, such as Gertz and chemistry graduate candidate Hollie Ryan, 31.

Ryan spent 11 years working in Canada’s military reserves and earned a master’s degree in war studies from Ottawa’s Royal Military College of Canada in 2005. But she always remembered finding joy in executing Punnett squares — used to predict the outcome of crossing bean plant recessive and dominant traits — in 11th grade biology. She promised herself, “I’m going to work in a lab one day and be a genetics researcher.”

After meeting an American man overseas and eventually moving to Virginia, she now works full-time for an Arlington national security consulting firm, attends classes at Mason and puts in 12 to 16 hours a week at Professor Robin Couch’s biochemistry lab on Mason’s Prince William Campus.

Ryan is striving to identify ways to control Francisella tularensis, an infectious bacterium that causes tularemia (a disease usually found in animals, but which can pose a threat to humans) and was one of the agents studied in the former Soviet Union as part of its infamous biological weapons program.

The days are long, but Ryan says they are worth it. “The older you are, the more you will have learned about your personality,” she says. “No matter what you are doing, you get to recognize where you fit best. Hopefully you are in a position where you can do something about it.”

Both Gertz and Ryan work in the lab, along with six other students. Finding students who will work hard in the lab is tough, says Couch, and he frequently relies on a gut response when he’s interviewing. “It’s the mature students who always shine in those scenarios,” he says.

According to Dean of Admissions Andrew Flagel, Mason at its inception featured a large adult student population, and the university still caters to this group through programs such as the Bachelor of Individualized Study (BIS), the Graduate School of Education’s Career Switcher Program and the School of Nursing’s accelerated pathway for registered nurses to earn their Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

The Bachelor of Individualized Study program is the only one on campus that allows students to earn credit for life experiences. It is designed for students who are at least seven years out of high school, are transferring credits from another institution and want to pursue an interdisciplinary study program that melds together interests that aren’t available in any of Mason’s other degree programs.

Director Jeannie Brown Leonard says the program, which graduated 79 students this spring, has a mandate from the university to expand.

“I think interdisciplinary inquiry is particularly attractive to an adult learner. They understand life isn’t divided into compartments the way academia is. This enables them to tailor their requirements to their career goals.”

With large numbers of military and government workers in the Washington, D.C., region, Leonard says there is a strong need for programs that assist them in transitioning to the next step in their careers. “You can gain access to those careers without a degree, but then you hit a hole,” she says.

Jen Rafter, 35, says that when she enrolled in college initially right out of high school, “I physically had the energy — but I didn’t have the focus.”

She decided to work instead, and after 10 years in the workforce, she enrolled at Mason to obtain her undergraduate degree in biology. Now Rafter is pursuing a master’s in Environmental Science and Policy and studying the Japanese mystery snail, while balancing her job as a wildlife educator.

At the graduate level “Mason is dominated by professional individuals coming back to expand their skills,” says Flagel.

Mason’s own press secretary, Dan Walsch, serves as a case in point, having begun course work for a doctoral degree in Strategic Communication last fall.

“The program will be of benefit to me personally and professionally,” he says. “One thing it’s doing is helping me be a better time manager.”

Walsch, who joined the university in 1989, enjoys the interactions with the other students, who are often younger than he is. “My classmates have been so helpful to me and generous. I’m learning a lot from them.”

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