Returning adult student turns hobby into college degree

University Park, Pa. — Five years ago, a visiting professor from France who was staying at Marilyn McPheron’s home encouraged her to go back to school “because you’d like it.” And so she did. McPheron will graduate in December with a bachelor of fine arts degree in printmaking, finally fulfilling a childhood dream she had long ago pushed aside in favor of working and raising a family.

Growing up in rural Ohio, McPheron loved to draw and had an art teacher who urged her to go to art school. Her guidance counselor, however, did not think college was in her future. “Times were different in 1972 and not so many rural farm girls went on to college as they do now,” she explained. Discouraged but not giving up, McPheron enrolled at Southern Ohio College and earned an associate’s degree in retail merchandising, with an emphasis in textiles. She paid for the program with loans and by working as the evening receptionist at Proctor and Gamble in Cincinnati.

In 1976, she married Bruce McPheron, who now serves as dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State. While he was in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she worked at the university and took advantage of a unique benefit for employees -- two free courses per semester. Circumstances did not allow her to pursue a degree, so she concentrated on raising her son and daughter and working various jobs.

Over the years, Marilyn McPheron continued to pursue art as a hobby, including creating a catalog of sewing patterns for “upside-down dolls” (two dolls in one) that she designed. In 1991, she was an “artist in action,” demonstrating her work at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, and in 2000, she exhibited her dolls at the HUB-Robeson Center. Art was her hobby, and pursuing a degree in the field did not seem practical.

Until 2005, when a visiting Frenchman forced her to look at her hobby -- and college -- in a different light. Frederic Marion-Poll, an entomology professor, stayed with the McPherons during his two weeks at Penn State. Over dinner one evening, he told McPheron she should go back to school. “At my age, what’s the point?” she replied. But it did not take long for her to see things his way.

Soon after that fateful conversation -- and with the support of her husband and children -- McPheron applied to and was accepted in the School of Visual Arts at Penn State. She was fortunate to have the backing not only of her family, but also of her supervisor in the Office of International Programs in the College of Agricultural Sciences, where she has worked as study abroad coordinator since 2000. From 2005 to 2009, she worked full-time and took two or three courses per semester. In spring 2010, she moved to a part-time position to become a full-time student.

A Schreyer Honors College Scholar, she admits being a returning adult student was a bit intimidating at first. She recalls being “terrified” when she walked into her first class, Art History 111, in fall 2005. “But about 10 minutes into the lecture, I suddenly felt like someone had just pushed my finger into an electrical socket,” she explained. “It was fantastic! I definitely belonged back in the classroom.”

McPheron had planned to pursue a bachelor of arts degree in painting, but after she took her first printmaking class, she was hooked. She has exhibited her work on campus and locally, including a recent exhibit of handmade books in Borland Gallery. While she hopes to be a full-time artist in the near future, for now McPheron plans to continue her work in the Office of International Programs. She also is entering exhibits, preparing applications for printmaking residencies and writing proposals to teach workshops.

The past five years have been “quite interesting,” according to McPheron, but definitely worth it. In 2005, right before her first class, she made a list of 10 goals. She has achieved all but one, and said she can make the final goal happen, too. “Am I glad I returned to university? Yes! Because I took that leap, my entire life changed.”

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Last Updated January 10, 2014