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Learning for Life: Adults head back to school for new skills, opportunities

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    Kelly Lewis works on a computer at his home in Sylvania. His IT studies at Stautzenberger College have led to a new job and a side business building computers.

    <The Blade/Herral Long
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Kelly Lewis works on a computer at his home in Sylvania. His IT studies at Stautzenberger College have led to a new job and a side business building computers.

The Blade/Herral Long
Enlarge | Buy This Image

Sniff the mid-August air: You can almost smell the dust of No. 2 yellow pencils being sharpened.

It s day-old fish to the nostrils of many students who dread the march back to school, but you won t hear any gripes from Susan Tilton of Oregon, for one.

I m irritatingly happy about hitting the books again, she confessed.

And that s despite having a life that s more crowded than the usual student s: She has four young children and a husband whose job takes him away a lot.

I don t find it difficult at all, said the cosmetology student at the Toledo Academy of Beauty s East School. I enjoy getting up and going to school ... I m having fun.

Mrs. Tilton, 32, chose to go back to school, just as did other adults who are seeking a better life through education. Some are looking to re-enter the workforce, switch careers, or move up to a better-paying or more secure job. Some are after personal satisfaction, or want to set a good example for their children.


Sherry Smith, left, cuts Lynne Michalak's hair under the supervision of instuctor Rose Stoffel at the Toledo Academy of Beauty South School.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 37 percent of all college students were age 25 and older in October, 2005. Other nontraditional students are back in class at adult education centers, vocational schools, and apprenticeship programs.

Students who step directly from high school to college might be sharper academically than their elders, but they usually aren t sure what they want to do with their lives, observed Bill Ivoska, vice president, student services, at Owens Community College, where the average student age is 27.

An adult learner might be rusty academically... but career-wise they typically know where they want to go, and they are more devoted to that study, he continued. They re a joy to have in class, and they bring a wealth of experience.

Karen Fitzgerald, director of admissions and marketing at Stautzenberger College in Maumee, said that more than 85 percent of the students who started programs there this summer have previously attended other colleges or universities, and just never finished for whatever reason. Life gets in the way sometimes, she reflected.

I think people are realizing that without a good education, the opportunities are just not there for you, Ms. Fitzgerald said. The whole economy is changing, and to stay in this area you re going to have to change with it.

Mrs. Tilton is one of those adults whose educational journey was detoured by life. She s about 200 hours into the 1,800-hour cosmetology program at Toledo Academy of Beauty in addition to the 84 college credit hours she earned across multiple majors at Bowling Green State University, the University of Toledo, and Owens since graduating from Clay High School in 1993.

I want to set a good example for my kids. I don t want my kids to see that Mom had 84 credits and no degree, Mrs. Tilton said. But when she met with an adviser about going back to complete her bachelor s degree, she found that I would have had to backtrack to get on track... I m not spending $30,000 and four more years of my life to get that degree, she said.

The only downside to being back in school 20 hours a week is that sometimes her children say they miss her, Mrs. Tilton said. And because there are no breaks in her program, they haven t been able to play organized team sports this summer because she isn t always available to provide transportation.

Overwhelmed, but excited

Angela Eggleston, 42, of Sylvania, said her employer, her instructors at Owens, and her family have been flexible and supportive as she learns to cope with being back in school after 20 years. A medical assistant at CardioCare Consultants, she took two classes at Owens this summer that she needed as prerequisites for the RN program.

Mrs. Eggleston remembers the weekend she had planned to devote to studying. I ended up in the ER with a family member all night. I was exhausted but I still had work to do for school and had to be at work Monday morning, she said.

Things come up unexpectedly. You do what you have to do.

Being back in school is a mix of emotions for her: knowing the time is right to do something for herself, accepting that it s not going to be easy, being excited about moving toward her goal of becoming a nurse. But none of that shielded her from an attack of new-kid-in-class nerves.

The first day, it seemed like everyone else knew the lingo and knew what to do. I just felt a little overwhelmed, Mrs. Eggleston said. I didn t start to get my confidence until maybe that second or third week.

Charles Coogler, Jr., 28, of West Toledo, was expecting a few bumps, too, as he started the barber academy at the Toledo Public Schools Adult Education Center. But those never materialized, said the husband and father of three who has bounced around in several schools, states, and jobs since graduating from Rogers High School in 1997.

I m more focused than I was back then, Mr. Coogler said. He tells himself: This is what you ve got to do, and in the long run it s going to pay off.

He started the program in February and expects that a year from now he ll be close to finishing the program and getting his license. Long term, he hopes to have his own barber shop.

Do your best

The future has already arrived for Kelly Lewis of Sylvania, 42, who is mid-way through the Information Technology program at Stautzenberger College in Maumee. He enrolled last October because my job was in jeopardy and I needed to do something. Formerly a prototype engineer at Ford, he now is assistant applications analyst at the Livonia Transmission Plant and has started a home-based business building and programming computers. It s really gratifying, he said.

Yet he agrees with other returning adult students that success depends on determination. If I didn t have the mindset that this was what I wanted to do, it would have been hard... You just have to make time for studying.

And, as a parent, you have to heed the advice you dish out to your children, according to Sherry Smith, 29, of Point Place. She tells her daughter Danielle, 13, that You ve got to study. You have to try your best. You ve really got to work hard, try to bring home those A s. Now, when I m faced with a test, I think I have to do my best.

Mrs. Smith attends the Toledo Academy of Beauty s school in South Toledo. This will be a new start for me, said the former stay-at-home mom who couldn t find a decent job when she decided to re-enter the workforce. It was like dead ends everywhere I turned.

Cindy Suminski of South Toledo already has the job she wants she s just learning how to do it better, with financial help from her employer. Al-Mackey Enterprises promised tuition reimbursement for any of her Stautzenberger accounting courses in which she earns a C or better; I ve gotten all A s, Mrs. Suminski, 47, reports.

I have been the bookkeeper here for three years and I ve been doing accounting for probably 20 years, but I never had the formal training and the degree, she said. She ll finish her current program with an associate degree and is already considering the possibility of going on to earn a bachelor s degree.

I graduated high school in 1978 but I never went to college and I ve regretted it for 28 years, Mrs. Suminski said. I love school. I m having a terrific time.

Contact Ann Weber at: or 419-724-6126.

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