Being the adult at school

Posted on March 15, 2012

Catherine VanRiette decided to go back to school immediately after her son turned his tassel at his UCLA graduation ceremony. She was 42 years old.

“Going back to school expanded my knowledge base,” said VanRiette, Adult Reentry Center coordinator. “It’s stimulating and it opens many opportunities. It led me to do what I wanted to do and be well paid for it.”

VanRiette was considered a reentry student — someone who doesn’t go straight to college from high school, making them older than a traditional college student.

While there are currently no statistics regarding reentry students, VanRiette estimates that there are about 5,000 undergraduate students and 3,000 graduate students who are nontraditional.

These students come from different backgrounds.

“They generally have more life experience and additional responsibilities — that could be a family, taking care of kids or kids taking care of parents, grandparents or a job,” VanRiette said.

In VanRiette’s case, she was working to make sure her son could graduate from UCLA. She took community college classes from time to time, but wasn’t able to really get into it until her son finished college. Her drive to return and finish school sprouted from the constant setbacks she received as a woman.

“When I was in elementary school, I remember learning math and the teachers gave more attention to the boys,” said VanRiette. “They told me, ‘It’s OK. You only need to know cups and ounces,’ so I can cook. But I knew I wanted to do more.”

She also wanted the degree to get the job and pay she always wanted. She once asked for a raise while working but was denied because of her sex.

“They said, ‘we can’t pay you that. That’s what we pay the men. They have families,’” she said. “Well I had a husband and a mortgage.”

Besides women who couldn’t complete their degree because of family responsibilities, veterans are also among reentry students.

Patrick Jamison, 28, a criminal justice major, came back to school after serving in the U.S. Army right after high school.

However, Jamison did not jump right into school the first chance he got. He took a year off to adjust to civilian life — a normal routine for combat veterans.

“Most veterans feel like they’re outside of the social realm,” said Jamison. “They have more life experiences, they see things differently, and they value things differently.”

However, the military gave him many skills that he uses in the classroom on a daily basis. Jamison attributes his leadership and communication skills, and the “confidence to speak in class when no else has the courage to do so” to being in the army.

Jamison was 23 years old when he started his college career.

“I was nervous about what I was able to retain from high school,” Jamison said.

Jamison admitted that he had trouble asking for help at first.

“You don’t really want to ask for help. I don’t know what the word is — it’s almost looked down upon,” he said. “The military teaches you to figure things out on your own.”

After a bad first year, Jamison knew something had to change.

He started to work with professors and got help at a tutoring center. His grades turned around the next year.

Jamison also had to learn how to balance his work and student life — he was working full time as a mechanic while attending classes at night.

“I was tired of being tired — tired of coming to school in my mechanic outfit with grease on my hands, then coming home to do homework and projects,” he said.

He decided to take fewer classes.

“One day it dawned on me — I’m never going to finish school if I keep putting work first,” said Jamison, who is also the communications and outreach officer for Veteran Student Services.

At that point, he changed his priorities. He worked less and began to take more classes.

There are many reentry students like Jamison who deal with responsibilities other than school.

Rosa Heckenberg, 58, was one of those students.

A wife, mother of two and an avid volunteer, Heckenberg has held many titles in her life. Her latest — CSUF alumna. She received her M.A. in education with an emphasis in student affairs this last spring.

Her passion for education stems from her volunteer work with her children’s schools from kindergarten to university.

“If I wanted to help students, then I couldn’t do it with the education I had,” said Heckenberg.

She started pursuing her bachelor’s at CSUF in 2003 while working, helping her husband with his business, volunteering at her daughter’s high school and serving on the advisory board at San Diego State University, where her son was attending at the time. Heckenberg managed to finish her master’s degree by 2011.

The most difficult thing was starting over. Before going back, the last time Heckenberg was in school was in 1979.

“Nobody my age will admit this, but we think, ‘they (younger students) might be smarter than me, so I’m going to have to compete,” VanRiette said. “And (we) can with skills (we) get through the Reentry Center … Younger students will say, ‘Oh they can compete alright.”

Originally published in the Daily Titan, Cal State Fullerton’s student-run newspaper.

Posted in: Features