Adult learners go back to school to pursue new careers

When Eric Gayle began his first semester at Penn State York after graduating from Susquehannock High School in 1989, he realized he wasn’t ready for college. “I was young and didn’t focus,” he admitted.

Gayle worked for a while and then joined the Navy, serving four years, including as a gunner’s mate on the cruiser U.S.S. Dale, stationed at Naval Station Mayport in Florida.

In 1996, Gayle returned to Penn State York, using his GI Bill benefits, but left again to take a job to support his growing family that now includes wife, Gina, and children Zachary, Hannah and Micayla. Then, after working in excavation and construction for 10 years, he was laid off. Like millions of other out-of-work Americans, Gayle faced a choice: look for another job that doesn’t require a college education or prepare for a new career.

As the poor economy plods on, some believe that those jobs requiring only a high school diploma are gone for good and existing and new jobs will require at least some college education. That’s what researchers at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce concluded in “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018.” They predicted that “by 2018, the economy will create 46.8 million openings.” Nearly two-thirds of these openings will require workers with at least some college, but during the next eight years, “the postsecondary system will have produced 3 million fewer college graduates than demanded by the labor market.”

Penn State is helping to buck this trend by offering adults multiple ways to acquire the education and training they need to succeed: on-campus and online and a combination of both formats, called blended learning.

Third Time’s a Charm

Gayle, now 39, chose to re-enroll at Penn State York for a third time in 2008 and take classes on campus. His goal was to be accepted into the chemical engineering program in the College of Engineering at University Park campus. He’s currently a full-time student in the program and expects to graduate in May 2011.

For his perseverance, Gayle was honored with the 2010 Outstanding Adult Student Award, which recognizes an exceptional adult learner at University Park. Gayle’s GI Bill benefits had expired, so he was grateful to be the first recipient of a grant funding this award from the new Adult Learner Opportunity Fund. The grant was applied to his fall tuition.

“I couldn’t do this without my wife’s and kids’ support,” added Gayle, whose wife works at The Arc of Centre County.

There are more than 13,000 adult undergraduate students throughout the Penn State system—learners 24 years or older, veterans, returning to college after four or more years of employment or those with multiple life roles.

With high unemployment, there’s no guarantee that all the effort will result in an immediate job opportunity. But many agree that achieving a college degree gives candidates a leg up when economic conditions improve.

“College can be challenging for adult learners, because they often are juggling multiple roles and responsibilities while taking classes,” said Martha Jordan, director of Recruitment and Admission Services, a Penn State Outreach unit. “Many adult learners like Eric Gayle are also in mid-life and searching for a career they are passionate about—one where they can make a difference in peoples’ lives. Penn State is committed to helping these learners get started.”

First Campus Visit at Graduation

As a student, Megan O’Meara Caldwell had never set foot on Penn State’s University Park campus until the day she picked up her diploma last spring. The St. Petersburg, Fla., resident had completed her B.A. in psychology completely online.

“I was very excited about the visit and meeting some of my peers” for the first time, said Caldwell, who worked full time as a proposal development specialist with UnitedHealthcare StudentResources while earning her degree.

Caldwell was among the first 28 students to graduate from the bachelor of arts/bachelor of science in psychology degree programs offered by the College of the Liberal Arts and delivered online through Penn State’s World Campus.

She had previously majored in psychology at Tulane University and also had attended the University of Florida in Gainesville and Eckerd College in her hometown, amassing 114 credits.

“I was interested in finishing my degree,” she explained, “but didn’t want to take forever to do so and needed a flexible program that would allow me to work full time.”

Caldwell plans continue her education in Boston University’s Master of Science in Health Communication program. Caldwell believes her education, combined with her broad experience, will make her career opportunities much more versatile. “I hope to someday work on initiatives to promote health literacy and health-enhancing behaviors,” she said.

From On-campus to Online

A former biomedical equipment technician in the Air Force, Armánd R. Dotsey III was able to complete his undergraduate degree, a bachelor of science degree in information sciences and technology at Penn State, when his wife, Michelle, was posted to Penn State to teach Air Force ROTC in 2005.

Both had enlisted in the Air Force in the late ’80s, but they didn’t meet until 2001. Dotsey had completed his service and was working at Lucent Technologies when he met Michelle at Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix. After marrying, the couple moved often. It became a familiar cycle: Dotsey would find a new university and start classes again. Penn State was the seventh university Dotsey attended.

With two tiny children and Michelle in tow at graduation in May 2010, Dotsey sported a prized Penn State ring. “I splurged on it because finishing my degree at Penn State meant so much to me,” he said. Dotsey had so many credit hours -- 210 -- that he graduated as what’s known as a “super senior.”

Michelle retired as an Air Force captain this year, and the couple has settled in State College. Aged 40, Dotsey is now a dual master’s candidate in systems engineering and engineering management through programs offered by Penn State Great Valley School of Graduate Professional Studies and delivered online by World Campus.

As a recipient of Penn State’s Bunton-Waller Fellowship, Dotsey’s tuition is paid for; Dotsey also receives a stipend from the University to conduct research under the supervision of James Nemes (mechanical engineering) and Nil Ergin (systems engineering).

Dotsey juggles family life and part-time work along with his studies. Because of Dotsey’s passion for aviation, he is considering being a systems engineer at an aviation or a defense contractor.

Spurred by a Layoff

Jonathan “Chip” Powers, 44, had worked for nearly 20 years in the injection molding industry, making plastic parts for medical devices. He had been a production supervisor at Avail Medical Products in Bellefonte for 11 years when the company was bought and closed. He was laid off in 2009.

“I thought I could use this time to finish my degree,” said Powers, a married father of three who lives in State College. He used a federal program that helps laid-off workers retrain to re-enroll at Penn State and complete a degree he had begun after graduating from high school in 1984.

“With a bachelor’s degree in Organizational Leadership, I’ll be able to get a better job,” said Powers, who graduated last spring and is searching nationwide for a position in manufacturing, process engineering or management. He added: “I’m trying to stay positive as I search for the right job to fit me.

This article is from the fall issue of Penn State Outreach magazine.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010