In good company: At area schools, adults are changing the age of the student body

Excerpt of September 17 Greenwich Time article by Silvia Foster-Frau.

When Cara Giacomo was presented with an opportunity to rise in the ranks at Greenwich Hospital, she was thrilled. And then she told her boss it was a bad idea.

“I think I’m more of use to you where I am,” she told him.

Giacomo was working as a program administrator. She had two kids in elementary school. Her husband was a lawyer. On the surface, things were going fine for her. But underneath, she had a secret.

“Everybody around me had degrees,” Giacomo said.

And Giacomo did not.

She was a certified secretary and had managed to move through the ranks from PR firms to food companies and now Greenwich Hospital, qualified by skills, but not by a degree.

Telling her boss sparked something in her. When she had the opportunity in a leadership course at the hospital to talk about her biggest secret, she realized she needed to come clean. Giacomo told a room full of strangers that she did not have a degree.

“It was mortifying to disclose the information. But I realized, gee, I should’ve done that ages ago. I didn’t realize it was weighing on me all that time,” Giacomo said.

When she took her son, Michael, to a careers fair, she noticed Fordham University offered an organizational leadership degree in its continuing studies program. And she couldn’t stop thinking about it.

She said she told her family, “I want you to see me walk.”

Giacomo started taking classes at Fordham’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies in Westchester County in 2012.

Though she might have felt alone in her office at Greenwich Hospital, on a national level, Giacomo had company.

According to the National Center for Education, students 25 and older are enrolling in degree programs at a faster rate than their younger, traditional counterparts. Currently, about 4 million people over the age of 35 are enrolled in a degree-granting institution. The center expects older students to make up almost half of college and graduate-school enrollments by 2020.

Fordham’s continuing studies school is a popular destination for many adult students from Greenwich, said Isabelle Frank, the dean of the school.

With 900 students enrolled, the age range spans from 18 to 70, with an average age of about 30. The students generally take one night class a week — a manageable schedule for adult who often work during the day.

Fordham separates classes for “nontraditional” — meaning older — students from those of traditional ones. Frank said this cultivates a better classroom environment.

“They don’t want to be with 18 year olds. They feel out of place, they feel insecure,” she said. “It’s a big step for them coming back to school. They really want programs that are geared towards them. They want to be in classrooms with students like themselves.”

Frank said many adult students attend her school because they’re searching for a sense of fulfillment.

“They want to get ahead in their lives and they see the Bachelor’s degree to being the key to moving forward … They feel like they haven’t accomplished what they want to accomplish,” said Frank.

Without a degree, Giacomo said she had always felt she was missing something.

“I’ve always had a fire in my belly. I knew I was getting too comfortable,” she said. “Coming back to school was scary and daunting. I thought I was going to have a heart failure, I hadn’t written a paper in I don’t know how long.”

But she loved her class and she loved her teachers, she said.

Frank said teaching adult education is challenging. On one hand, it’s easier because the students are more dedicated. Deciding to go back to school is often a big life decision, Frank said. But a room full of older students can present difficulties not found in a class of young undergraduates.

“You have to be able to draw on interest, (get) the ones who might be really scared and insecure about their ability to contribute and manage the ones who are super confident because they’ve been running their own business and think they know everything,” said Frank.

Giacomo was part of the insecure crowd at first. But as time went on she found school more and more empowering.

“I’m more confident of having discussions about what I don’t know,” she said.

According to the National Center for Education, most adult students are juggling more than their younger, traditional counterparts. They often identify more as a mom or a career person than as a student.

Giacomo chose the organizational leadership degree, one of the most popular majors at the school, because she felt it fit in with her job. As a result, she attained “life credit,” to go toward her degree. Many institutions dedicated to nontraditional students offer credit for an adult’s experience.

Frank explained that the students at her school come for many reasons. Some are making mid-life career changes, while others are looking to make themselves more marketable in their line of work. And some have already retired and are taking classes solely for intellectual enrichment.

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