The Right Time, the Right Place
Jan 17, 2014 01:00PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Ten years ago, Kathy Pearson didn’t own a suit, she tells me, sitting today in the library of Chesapeake College sporting a tailored, black two-piece combo with a pop of plum peeking through. Amid a sea of sweatshirts, sneakers, and jeans—the standard college attire—Kathy isn’t afraid to stand out. She’s proud of her recent academic accomplishments and the confidence they have awakened within her. The suit portrays on the outside exactly what she’s feeling on the inside: empowered.
“I remember going to a job interview in jeans and T-shirt and thinking nothing of it,” the 45-year-old Centreville-area resident says, her slightly gruff voice emblematic of her deep Eastern Shore roots. (She initially tells me she’s from Starr, a hamlet near Wye Mills, before clarifying, “You wouldn’t know where that was unless you were from here.”) Kathy’s wardrobe selection suited her just fine in the manufacturing field, where she worked as a quality control specialist and carpenter for a company that built movable walls. As a mother of two then-school-aged children, she was making ends meet while still finding time to do the things she loves—namely all things outdoors and volunteering as a football coach for area youth.
But her life took a traumatic turn a few years ago when she was injured on the job. Two surgeries on her right hand later and Kathy lost all function of the limb after developing a rare and painful syndrome known as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSDS) or Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. “I thought to myself, ‘Where can I go from here?’ I have no more education than a high-school degree. I went right into the workforce after high school—that’s what you did back then. And now I don’t have full use of my hands. Your hands are everything; you don’t realize that until you’re injured.”
As it turns out, the path through Kathy’s crossroads was closer than she thought—a mere five-minute drive down to the road to the Wye Mills campus of the local community college, Chesapeake College. At the encouragement of a counselor with the Maryland State Department of Education Division of Rehabilitation Services (DORS), Kathy decided to pursue an associate’s degree in engineering—the field most closely linked to her previous work, where she had coordinated with engineers to modify door designs. But her story certainly doesn’t end there. Kathy’s journey since then has been nothing short of inspiring. Despite facing more obstacles than most of her nontraditional student counterparts— she was, after all, learning to write with her left hand at the same time she began taking courses at Chesapeake—Kathy never wavered on her goals, which now include finishing out the last two years of her bachelor’s degree in environmental management at University of Maryland University College and possibly pursuing a master’s degree in a related field.
To hear Kathy tell it, though, none of this would have been possible if it weren’t for Chesapeake College. “You really get a lot of encouragement throughout the whole system,” she says, from instructors to support staff to students. “When I came in, I just wanted that associate’s degree and to get back working. But they really force you to look at your long-term goals here [at Chesapeake] and to never give up. I really grew up as a person here.”
The Core of the Shore
Kathy’s story, although rare in circumstance and fortitude, is not unique at Chesapeake College, where nontraditional students—meaning those older than 22—make up about 38 percent of the student base (roughly 1,000 students a semester).
Nontraditional students have always been an important part of the college’s mission, says President Barbara Viniar, largely because they are “people who have made a commitment to be here.” “This is the core of the Shore,” she says. “This is a population we already know lives here and wants to stay here. That’s got to be a critical part of our mission.”
Much of the college’s success in serving this student segment comes from its twofold approach: not only providing a variety of degree and training programs, but also placing a special emphasis on support services, in particular advising. “We’re moving toward a new model—to have closer integration of academic and career advising,” Dr. Viniar says. “We’re looking a lot at career ladders, how one thing can lead to another. If a student has a short-term goal, we need to honor that, but we want to make sure we’re not allowing them to think too narrowly. We want to help them understand their long-term future.”
For many nontraditional students like Kathy, who came to Chesapeake looking to simply complete the associate’s curriculum, it can be difficult to think long-term when you’re juggling the emotions and weight of a career change—not to mention the academic work load. But it’s never been more critical than now, Dr. Viniar says. “One of the things we’re seeing now is that this notion of the terminal degree at the associate’s level is kind of fading. For example in nursing, the bachelor’s is going to be the new requirement. Our program, where we used to say, ‘Finish this program, get a job, and you’re done,’ we now need to make sure that that program not only prepares students for a job but also prepares them for the next step at a bachelor’s degree.”
As an academic institution, this means ensuring that all of the credits earned at Chesapeake will transfer to a four-year university, where a bachelor’s degree can be earned.
While the college seems to have a firm handle on these and other academic adjustments, it has a formidable partner in the Upper Shore Workforce Investment Board when it comes to job training programs. Through a formulated approach, the Workforce Investment Board—which is based on Chesapeake College’s Wye Mills campus—provides career counseling and government training grants to economically disadvantaged adults, youth, and dislocated workers, with a significant proportion of its services aimed at those who fit the mold of a nontraditional student. Its 30-year partnership with Chesapeake College has been beneficial to all parties involved, says Executive Director Dan McDermott, as the two institutions have worked hand in hand to provide the necessary tools and training to not only get people back to work, but also to ensure they have a clear path to future success. “The vast majority of the people we serve get trained here at Chesapeake,” McDermott says, be it through a degree (think nursing) or certification (think professional truck driving) program.
While Chesapeake College serves as the site for formal training— paid for by Workforce Investment Board grants for eligible applicants—the Workforce Investment Board has been able to provide valuable feedback and input that the college has used to better serve its students, such as requiring background checks and color-blindness testing up front in the truck driving program, as they would preclude students from completing the program. The college, in turn, has strengthened the Workforce Investment Board’s efforts through its emphasis on career pathways, reinforcing and carrying out the board’s forward-looking strategy that includes goal setting, market research, and skill matching—all part of the workshops clients are required to complete before starting any formal training.
“They are working more here [at Chesapeake] on the idea of, ‘Here’s your first step, but are there other steps you might want to take and how can we help you?’” McDermott says. “That’s been really good for us because we do want people to reengage in the labor market as soon as possible, but we also are interested in people developing and going further. That’s the most efficient use of labor resources.”
The Thrill of Reinvention
For Robin DeMaso, the first step in a nursing career came when she took a job a few years ago as an access representative, registering patients at Shore Health System’s Queen Anne’s Emergency Center in Queenstown.
The 50-year-old Kent Island resident—who holds a bachelor’s degree in business management—had spent the past decade or so working a range of jobs that gave her the flexibility she needed while raising her children. Little did she know, the latest job in that succession would turn into so much more.
“Watching the nurses do what they do every day, combined with the realization that both of my kids will be in college soon and the thought that I’ll have a stage three in life, I realized I wanted to do something with more value,” says the first-year student at Chesapeake College’s MacQueen Gibbs Willis Nursing School. “I want to have a skill that allows me to help anybody anywhere on the planet, and nursing does that.”
Starting down the path to a nursing career wasn’t a difficult decision for Robin, who completed her prerequisite courses at the Wye Mills campus last year before starting her nursing classes this year at the college’s offsite location at Memorial Hospital in Easton. But had Chesapeake College not offered the right environment, she wouldn’t feel as confident in that decision as she does today.
“Going back and doing those prerequisites last year was such an overwhelmingly positive experience; I’ve ridden that into the nursing program,” Robin says, noting the impact of several key faculty and staff members, including biology professor Dr. Noah Kover—whom she calls “one of the best professors I’ve ever had; he just made learning fun”—all of her study buddies, and Marylu Towey of the Academic Support Center.
That same level of support is just as prevalent in the college’s nursing school, says Robin, who now spends her class time learning how to administer dosages and monitor vitals, among many other things, on the college’s state-of-the-art simulation mannequins.
Finding a Home
More so than traditional students (who typically come right out of high school), it’s hard to lump all nontraditional students into one group. There are the students, like Robin, who are looking to reinvent themselves in their career; there are those who are unemployed and seeking a path back into the workforce (maybe they are referred through the Workforce Investment Board); and then there’s a segment somewhat unique to the Shore who see change on the horizon—watermen, for instance—and don’t want to be left behind, Dr. Viniar says.
With such a range of backgrounds and motivations, “the challenge is always finding nontraditional students and helping them find us,” Dr. Viniar says. “It’s easy to get to high-school students because they’re all in the same place. We can go in and see everybody at the same time and we can reach out to their parents. It’s a stable, easy population to reach. Nontraditional students are everywhere.”
Attracting male nontraditional students has proven more difficult than attracting females, Dr. Viniar says, as women seem to be more disposed to seek the college’s services, for one reason or another. But, regardless of gender, once the college reaches these students—be it through a presence at community events, via their children, or through marketing campaigns, among other avenues—they don’t seem to have a problem keeping them.
That’s certainly true for Kathy Pearson, who even today, almost a year after graduating with her associate’s degree, still feels right at home at Chesapeake College. Between online classes on a Thursday afternoon, she makes her rounds catching up with old pals at the Academic Support Center and making new ones chatting outside the library. Her interactions symbolize a deeper symmetry found throughout campus, with older and younger students working together in exceptional harmony, learning from one another and being better for it.
“The kids were more accepting than I thought they’d be,” Kathy says, affectionately referring to the younger students at Chesapeake College, whom she worked with in class and as vice president and secretary of the student government. “It was actually a younger student who encouraged me to get involved with the student government. You think of student government, and you think of young kids. But this wasn’t that. It was a mix of ages and cultures that worked together. There was teaching on both sides.”
That blending of ages, backgrounds, and goals is what makes Chesapeake College so unique, and the right place for students of all kinds. It’s what made Kathy refuse to give up, even when life threw her one debilitating hardship after another—the latest of which came a semester before she was scheduled to graduate with her associate’s degree, when her then-20-year-old son suffered a stroke and needed to be nursed back to health. (He made a full recovery.)
“There was a point where I thought I wasn’t going to graduate,” she says. “But I just kept moving forward. Some of the people I’ve met have had a lot more struggles than I have. I thought, ‘If they can keep going, I can, too.’ And they have an excellent support system for you here at Chesapeake that encourages you to never give up.”
No one should ever think it’s not the right time for reinvention, Dr. Viniar says. “It doesn’t matter how old you are; it doesn’t matter what your previous successes or failures were. It’s about coming here and taking advantage of the opportunity. We’ll do everything to make sure a student succeeds here.”