Midlife learners balance obligations as they seek new challenges

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Rosemary Merrill was 50 years old when she went back to school, earning a certificate in kitchen and bathroom design from Century College. Deb Wilkens-Costello was also 50, and she hadn’t been in a classroom for 30 years when she enrolled in a master’s degree program at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. And Janet Lampi’s commitment was even greater. She entered a six-year doctoral program at the online Capella University, earning her Ph.D. in higher education administration just this month. She became “Dr. Lampi” at age 55.
Three midlife learners. How did they do it? Did their commitment and sacrifices pay off?

Rosemary Merrill: Certificate in kitchen & bathroom design, Century College
Going back to school at age 50 is not for the faint of heart. “It was a brave move,” Rosemary Merrill admitted. “It was either the bravest thing I’ve ever done, or the dumbest.”

It wasn’t the dumbest. Merrill’s return to the classroom invigorated her spirit and changed her life. There was a certain amount of risk involved: She quit her full-time job to attend the two-semester course. But the gamble paid off. After graduation, she immediately found employment in her new field. Today she designs kitchens and bathrooms for Sawhill Custom Kitchens and Design, based in International Market Square.

Personal changes, professional changes
In Merrill’s case, life changes created a yearning for change across the board. “I’m a single mom,” Merrill explained, thinking back on her decision to return to school. “I’d just sold a larger home and moved into a smaller one. My daughter had just gone off to college. My son was in high school.” Why kitchen and bath design? She’d remodeled her own kitchen a few years earlier and enjoyed the process. Since that time, Merrill had often thought she’d like to design kitchens for others. When she discovered the Kitchen and Bathroom Design program, she jumped.

“I thought, ‘This is just perfect,'” she said. “I didn’t have time for a four-year program. I couldn’t make the time or the financial commitment. If I was going to do this, I needed to get going.”

Time management key for Merrill
Because she’d left the security of a full-time paycheck, Merrill found a part-time job at a tile shop. The part-time work freed her days for class and offered her a look into her future career field. But the evening hours ate into her time at home with her son; they also cut into her homework time. “I was lucky I only had one [child] at home,” Merrill confessed. “It was a balancing act, especially since I’d set high goals for myself as a student. I wanted to be good at this or I didn’t want to do it.”

“I knew there was going to be a learning curve,” she added. “The program was more technical than I had imagined. It was very mathematical and mechanical, very precise.” Coursework included design techniques like lighting and layout, but it also stressed subjects like plumbing, electricity, heating and ventilation.

Temporary sacrifices, long-term rewards
Merrill’s temporary sacrifices resulted in permanent gains. Her new job is one she can see herself doing well into the coming years when others her age are thinking about retirement. “This is something I can do beyond retirement,” Merrill said, ticking her tongue at any concerns over her age.

She explained, “In my field, I think it’s an advantage to be a bit older. I’ve owned three homes. I’ve lived in different kitchens. I know kitchens from experience. I know what works well.” She clearly enjoys her work. “I love working with design. I have the ability to be creative,” she continued. “There is always something new-lights, looks, styles. It keeps your mind open to change. It keeps me fresh and young.”

Deb Wilkens-Costello: Master’s degree in public policy, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, Univ. of Minnesota
Like Merrill, Deb Wilkens-Costello was 50 years old when she went back to school in 2005. Wilkens-Costello says that while her age didn’t create any application troubles, she faced other challenges. “It had been 30 years since I’d stepped foot in a classroom,” Wilkens-Costello explained. “I had to change how I conducted myself as a student. The technology was challenging: I had to post my assignments online.”

Credit for life experience
While her computer skills may have been lacking, Wilkens-Costello’s accumulated years of real-life work experience paid off in the classroom. The Humphrey Institute assessed her relevant prior work and offered her credit toward her degree. Since Wilkens-Costello had served in the 1990s as CEO of Chrysalis, a well-known nonprofit organization that supports women in crisis, she was able to extract many instances in which her previous work could apply toward a degree concentration in women and social policy.
Family and personal sacrifices

Currently a development officer at the University, Wilkens-Costello was able to take advantage of tuition benefits that would make her degree affordable. But the financing of her degree was the least of her concerns. Like Merrill, she ended up sacrificing family and personal time.

While Wilkens-Costello’s home responsibilities were eased a bit due to her older children being away at college, she still faced a demanding schedule. “My husband travels for work, so I often am juggling it all,” she explained. With a 9-year-old still at home, “It is very challenging. I have to study a lot. I have to spend less time in the evenings and on weekends with my daughter. Sometimes we do our homework together, or we read together. But honestly, she’s a little sick of grad school right now.”

Other areas of her life have suffered, too. “I was thinking about the losses. I did have to give up things to do this,” she said. “I had to give up a volunteer position at Planned Parenthood on the board of directors. My social life is nearly gone. I don’t have time for my friends. There are definitely trade-offs. The program is very intense.”

Classes invigorate her
Yet Wilkens-Costello has found new energy and new ideas. “It’s very empowering to go back into the classroom, to write a 25-page paper and get positive feedback on it,” she said. “It’s been refreshing to meet new people,” she added. “And the classes are diverse. There are lots of international students and they challenge my perspectives.

“The skills I’m gaining are applicable to my current job,” she explained. “I think back on my role at Chrysalis, and I know that if I were in that leadership role right now, my strategies for creating a network to help women would be more integrated. I would approach things differently.”

Wilkens-Costello will finish her master’s work in 2007. She doesn’t have a career plan in mind, admitting, “It’s not fully clear to me yet.” For now, she’s enjoying the process. “You are never too old to do this,” she declared. “Yes, I had to learn how to study again. I had to learn new technology. But this has been such a rich experience.”

Janet Lampi: Doctorate in higher education administration, Capella University
Just this month, at the age of 55, Lampi earned the title of Dr. Lampi when she completed her doctorate in higher education administration. It was a six-year process, completed entirely online through Minneapolis-based Capella University, an accredited online university.

Facing closed doors
Before enrolling in the doctoral program, Lampi taught dental hygiene classes at Mankato State University. She already had a master’s degree, the highest degree available in her field. Although she enjoyed teaching, she wanted to apply for administrative positions that required a doctorate. “I wanted to open more doors outside my field,” Lampi explained. “But I felt like I was standing in a corridor with lots of doors and all of them were closed.”

Geography led Lampi to consider online learning. She lives in Truman, a small town in southwestern Minnesota. The drive to Mankato was already troublesome. Commuting to the Twin Cities for weekly classes would be even more costly and time-consuming. Yet the decision to enroll in an online program wasn’t easy. She wondered about the credibility of online learning.

Advantages of online learning
“I really researched it,” Lampi said. “Capella’s website says they’re accredited, but what does that mean? I called the North Central Association, the accrediting institution, and asked them.”

Lampi did her homework. After discussing the accreditation process with a representative of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, she visited the Capella University campus in Minneapolis. “It was just an exploratory visit,” she recalled. “I just went strictly to see it. I saw real people that were professional and organized. I was impressed. I walked out enrolled.” Like Wilkens-Costello, Lampi found mastering current technology was a challenge. “I truly didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Lampi laughed. “It was a huge learning curve. I didn’t know how to [fully] use a word processor. I didn’t know how to use the Internet or search engines.

“Any form of education requires self-discipline,” she continued. “In this case, even more so. In a traditional program, you have to make a commitment to show up, but with online learning, you have the freedom to log on when it fits your schedule. I had to be careful I didn’t say, ‘Oh, this isn’t due until Sunday,’ and then all of a sudden it’s Sunday.”

Online learning, while offering students flexibility, is structured. “At the beginning of the quarter, you go into your site and download your syllabus,” Lampi explained. “There is a book and there are weekly assignments. There are deadlines and guidelines and standards that must be met. There are timelines.”

For many classes, Lampi had a weekly requirement to write a 250-word response to the assigned reading. Her response had to be posted online. In addition, she had to read the posted responses of her classmates and respond to two of her classmates’ essays. Classes also required final projects that wove together ideas from the entire quarter.

She found the process stimulating. “I often wonder,” Lampi said, “if people aren’t more open when they have visual anonymity. Responses were thoughtful because you had time to think about what you wanted to say.”
While many fear the virtual classroom will be impersonal, Lampi learned otherwise. “I developed so many intensely rich relationships with my classmates,” she said.

Closed doors open wide
Now that she has her doctorate degree in hand, Lampi is unsure where it will take her. She’d consider a move to the Twin Cities, where her two children live, but her husband owns a business in their small town.

“I’d like to find a director or dean position at a campus with a dental hygiene or allied health department,” she said. Both are positions that weren’t open to her six years ago. But earning her doctorate has changed things. “Now,” Lampi noted, “those doors are open.”

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