In times of economic turmoil, trends in education exhibit an influx of nontraditional students heading back to school either for professional development, a new degree -— be it undergraduate, graduate or post-graduate — or a first-time degree.
The current climate is a textbook example.
Tulsa Business Journal spoke to five nontraditional students attending different colleges in the Tulsa MSA, enrolled in varying degree programs.
Of those five, three plan to continue their studies to the graduate level. Four spent some portion of their time studying at Tulsa Community College. Four have maintained full-time employment while in school, and four have children.
All agreed their endeavors haven’t been easy, but the goals they’re working toward have proven worth the effort.
All agreed they couldn’t have done it without the support of their spouses, families and employers.
All agreed their futures will be better for the hard work, time and money spent now.
And all will prove inspiring to any adult contemplating a return to education.
A Hand to Help Others Up
Deborah Hunter didn’t begin her college career until she was 47. Twelve years later, she’s nearly finished with her bachelor’s degree.
Hunter, 59, is a legal secretary and a poetry and spoken word artist who performs, teaches and offers workshops in the Tulsa area and northeastern part of Oklahoma.
She married right out of high school and had three daughters, but her husband left her just a few months before their 10th wedding anniversary.
“So there I was, 28 years old with three kids,” Hunter recalled. “I had no education other than a high school diploma and no real job experience.”
She cleaned houses for a few years while living with her daughters in Wichita, where her husband had been stationed in the Air Force.
When she decided to move back to Tulsa, she studied word processing at Votech, was certified and worked as an administrative assistant.
When the oil company she was working for laid her off in 1989, she found herself again at a loss.
“It was a bad year,” Hunter said. “It was when the oil companies were downsizing and the city was just in turmoil economically. I signed with five temp agencies and could not get a temporary assignment, because so many people with more experience than I had were willing to work for less money, and companies didn’t have to hire temps.”
It took her six months to find a temporary assignment, and she lived on unemployment benefits in the meantime.
“I was unemployed and had three kids at home and a mortgage, so it was a great time to go back to school,” Hunter said. “I qualified for financial aid and got my associate’s degree as a paralegal, because I decided I wasn’t going to be in that position again.”
Hunter worked as a paralegal for six years and then at the Day Center for the Homeless for two before she decided to get her bachelor’s degree. She began her studies at TCC, earning another associate’s degree, this time in liberal arts.
She spent a semester at the University of Tulsa, but that proved too expensive, even with financial aid, Hunter said.
She dropped out, and then family crises and health problems prevented her from re-enrolling elsewhere immediately.
“There were a lot of things going on that kept me from finishing, and then I didn’t want to go back to school,” Hunter said. “I lost my momentum.”
Last June, however, an opportunity to attend St. Gregory’s University’s College for Working Adults presented itself. Hunter enrolled and will receive her bachelor’s in social sciences in December of 2010.
Following that, “if my enthusiasm holds,” Hunter said, she’ll continue her education in hopes of earning a master’s in social work.
Her ultimate goal is to work with marginalized, or at-risk, populations, especially women and children.
“I’ve been there,” Hunter said. “When I lost my job here and was struggling so hard through the system to get my unemployment, dealing with the welfare system, it was just awful, and I thought, ‘You know, for people who don’t have the persistence I have or the ability to be as persistent as I am, no wonder they just give up.’ Because it’s so hard. They make it so hard. So that’s what made me interested in people who are marginalized, particularly women.
“Once I was able to do better for myself, I just knew that I needed to figure out a way to help other people.”
At the time of his interview with Tulsa Business Journal, Jason Aycock, 24, was eagerly anticipating the birth of his second son.
In the meantime, he worked full-time at Saint Francis Health System as an intake coordinator for the hospital’s home equipment provider, attended OSU-Tulsa full-time as an accounting student, spent one weekend a month as a soldier in the Oklahoma National Guard and played husband to his wife Rebecca and father to their 6-year-old son Rusty.
It was for his family that Aycock went back to school after working for a number of years. Although he tried his hand at college directly after graduating high school, attending the University of Tulsa and majoring in engineering, he left to get married and start a family.
In 2006, Aycock began studies at Tulsa Community College, studying business, before transferring to OSU-Tulsa in the spring of 2008. He’ll graduate in May of 2010.
“I’ve always been interested in business and wanted to pursue some type of corporate career,” Aycock said. “So that was really the motivation — to be able to establish some kind of long-term success.”
Following graduation, Aycock hopes to go to graduate school, earning either an MBA, a master’s in finance or even a law degree.
“My goal, my intention, is to go to TU for an MBA,” Aycock said. “They also have one thing that I’m really seriously considering. It’s actually a dual degree. It’s two master’s degrees, but you do it simultaneously. It’s an MBA and a master’s in finance. And that would really be a big deal. Doing that would be great.
“And, if I had that MBA and the accounting background and possibly the finance background, going to law school would really be an advantage in the legal profession.”
Although he hasn’t quite decided what direction he’d like his career to take, Aycock knows he wants to go straight into his master’s studies after graduating from OSU-Tulsa.
“I don’t want to skip a beat because there’s too much temptation to (say), ‘Oh, I’ll just work for a couple of years and then come back,’” Aycock said.
“My mother is a perfect example,” he said. “She put it off and came back later, and it was so much harder. I’d like to just get it done while I’m motivated.”
Not only has he motivated himself, but he’s also motivated his wife to continue her education. Although she took a semester off during her pregnancy, she’s been taking general education classes at TCC.
“I’m really thrilled she’s going to school because it gives her a sense of accomplishment, and it will be better for our family in the long run,” Aycock said. “Since she didn’t go to college right out of high school, it’s a bigger challenge for her, but I’m confident in her abilities, and I know she will succeed.”
It hasn’t been easy for Aycock, either, managing his time during what amounts to 18-hour days. But it’ll be worth it, he said.
“I do not believe people should go to college just for the sake of going to college,” he said. “I think it’s not for everybody. But if you have the ambition and the motivation, then it really is worth it.”
Second Time’s a Charm
Karah Franklin wants another bachelor’s degree.
The 25-year-old Lawton native graduated from the University of Oklahoma three years ago with a bachelor’s in political science, but will be a full-time student at Northeastern State University-Broken Arrow in the spring working toward a degree in accounting.
“There’s not a lot of career counseling that goes on at the undergraduate level,” Franklin said. “There’s a lot of, ‘What’s your major and how do we get you graduated and out of here?’ but there’s not a lot of ‘What happens after that?’”
After graduating from OU, Franklin said she looked for four months for a job that would allow her to utilize her degree. The couple she ended up taking didn’t make her happy.
“I ended up in some jobs that weren’t good for me, which I think a lot of people do straight out of college and get disappointed and burn out really fast,” she said.
She took a part-time position as a teller at Arvest Bank in 2007 to have something to do while she “figured things out,” and she figured out that she really enjoyed working at the bank.
She went through some career counseling through Arvest’s human resources department and learned that in order be eligible for promotions within the company she would need to take some accounting classes.
In 2008, she began taking part-time classes at Tulsa Community College and found she enjoyed those as well.
“It’s just been something that I’ve been kind of chipping away at and taking classes part-time,” Franklin said. “I’m really lucky that I’ve been able to take advantage of Arvest’s tuition reimbursement for their associates, to have them be so supportive of your professional development.”
Franklin spent six months as a teller for Arvest, then worked as a deposit counselor, opening new accounts, and is now a Next officer, providing personal banking services to young professionals.
She said she was surprised she took so quickly to banking and accounting because it wasn’t anything she had ever considered doing before.
“I went though a couple of different majors,” she said. “For a lot of people, they don’t know what they like; they just know what they really don’t like. But for me, it was like I wanted to do everything. So I just had to focus on one thing. And I’ve always been pretty active politically — I just grew up in that kind of household — so that was what I was interested in and what I wanted to do.
“But I hadn’t really thought. ‘What happens when you graduate?’ I really loved my classes, I really did, but it was like, nobody was ever like. ‘What are you going to do when you get out of here and you’re supposed to have a job?’”
Franklin said, although earning her degree the second time around has been more difficult, as she’s worked more and now has a husband, she thinks she’ll find more success this time.
“It’s just a different feel this time, knowing that I’m working toward something that has an after, instead of when I was in college and just trying to get out and didn’t really care what happened next,” she said.
Working Through the Fear
Katie Navarro went from being a high school dropout to being a full-time college student with her eye on a master’s degree.
Navarro, a Claremore native and resident, left high school at 17, got married at 18 and spent the following 14 years raising her four sons.
When her marriage ended in 2005, Navarro, now 32, was at a loss.
“I tried to get jobs at McDonald’s — every fast food place — and no one would hire me,” Navarro said. “I had no job history, you know? Nobody gets credit for being a stay-at-home mom.”
Navarro said she was out of options and didn’t know what to do.
“Literally, I came past the school one day and just said, ‘I’ll go look into school,’” Navarro recalled. “I never really thought I would actually do it. It just seriously was meant to be.”
Navarro earned her GED and enrolled at Rogers State University as a full-time student, subsisting on food stamps, public day care assistance and government grants.
“That was a big step for me as well, having to accept government assistance,” Navarro said. “That was not a position I had ever been in, and it was a little humiliating in the beginning.
“Over the last five years, I’ve had to swallow my pride a lot. It is really easy to give, but it is so difficult to learn to receive. This college has given me so much.”
Navarro enrolled with the intention of completing the dental hygiene program, something that would be quick and ensure her a job upon graduation.
“I didn’t put much thought into it,” Navarro said.
But, during her second semester at RSU, she took Quentin Taylor’s American Federal Government class.
“The professor was so passionate about government and the law and the way things get passed,” Navarro said. “It lit a fire in me that has not gone out. I immediately went out after that class and changed my whole degree plan from dental hygiene to justice administration.”
Navarro will graduate with her bachelor’s in the fall of 2010. She plans to then immediately enroll in either graduate or law school.
“I’d really like to go work for the city (Claremore), work my way up to public service,” Navarro said. “I’ve got this whole plan. People tell me I’m crazy, but I really think that’s where I’ll do the most good. I want to work in public relations with the city and then maybe go try my hand at Congress — at the state level.
“I know it sounds so ridiculous, but I want to make a difference, you know?”
Although she’s the single mother of four boys (ages 16, 12, 10 and eight) and a full-time student, she got involved with the Student Government Association shortly after enrolling in the university.
“It was the scariest thing I ever did coming back to school,” Navarro said. “Honestly, I was not thriving very much at school just doing it by myself. I was so overwhelmed, and I felt so alone. I felt like no one understood what I was going through, being a parent and going to school. I don’t think I would have been as successful as I am if I had kept to myself.”
She said her student status has helped her connect with her sons, who can relate to her struggles in school.
“I have two who are teenagers, and in the teenage years (are) usually when they start rebelling, (saying,) ‘You don’t understand me,’” Navarro said. “Right now, yes I do. I understand what they’re going through, and that really has helped our relationships.
“I’m not one of those parents who just tells them they can do anything they put their minds to; I get to show them.”
When Lynden Gwartney, 28, a disabled Marine veteran, had the opportunity to go back to school through the military’s Vocational Rehabilitation program, he chose Tulsa Community College’s Professional Pilot degree, an area of study he wouldn’t have been able to afford without the government’s assistance.
Following high school, Gwartney attended three colleges in two years but didn’t have much direction and didn’t really know what he wanted to do, he said.
He and a friend, desperate for jobs and some quick cash, went to a job fair in 2003, and the top recruiters there were Coca-Cola, which was hiring delivery drivers, and the Marine Corps.
“We ended up signing up, and 10 days later we were at boot camp,” Gwartney said.
During his four years in the Marines, Gwartney earned a bachelor’s degree through Eastern Oregon University in business and spent a year and a half in Fallujah, Iraq.
But it wasn’t there he was injured.
“I got injured playing sports,” he said. “We were playing soccer, and I just got stomped on.”
Gwartney said he didn’t have a long history of yearning to be a pilot, but when he saw the Professional Pilot program on the list of options, he couldn’t pass it up.
“I was looking for something I could do that I never would have gotten to do otherwise,” he said.
He began the program at TCC in January of 2008 and has since earned his associate’s degree. Through TCC, he’s earned his private pilot license, his instrument rating, his multi-engine rating, his commercial single-engine license and his commercial multi-engine license.
He’ll enroll in the spring in Oklahoma State University-Tulsa to complete his bachelor’s degree. The program is a joint effort between TCC and OSU-Tulsa.
Gwartney said his original intent, upon completing his degree, was to fly for the airlines.
“I thought if I could get trained through the military, that would be an awesome way of doing it,” he said. “So I enlisted in the Oklahoma Air National Guard here in Tulsa, the 138th Fighter Wing. I wanted to try to get on a board and get selected to become an F-16 pilot out at the base. If I got selected, then they would send me to a couple of years of flight training, and then I would have a 10-year commitment with them in Tulsa.”
He didn’t get selected, but he also decided not to become an airline pilot.
“Since then — it’s been a couple of years now —I’ve really gotten to look at what direction I want to go in life, and really what I’m the most passionate about,” he said.
He started a business with a partner called Mind of a Champion Sports, through which he plans to teach students the mental aspects of competing in team sports.
“We’re doing free seminars, and we’re wanting to have seminars in different areas of the country,” Gwartney said. “And to have our own airplane — to not have to worry about lines and baggage and checking in and out of places. We can just go to the airport, jump in the plane and head to our next seminar.”
Gwartney will graduate from OSU-Tulsa in two years and be in the National Guard until May of 2011. He works full-time as a payroll analyst for American Airlines, is a husband and father. His wife recently started going back to school to be a pharmaceutical technician, and Gwartney said she’s learning some of the time management skills he had to develop over the last six years.