January 13, 2005 | Like many college students, Utah State University dietetics major Debbie Christofferson is usually awake at 3 a.m. She isn't attending parties or wrapping up a late night movie-fest, though. In fact, she's just getting out of bed. For Christofferson, a 50-year-old mother of four, these early morning hours are her only chance to study.
"The phone doesn't ring, nobody wants anything from me," Christofferson said. "Nothing sinks into my head after 8 p.m., so I go to bed at 10 and wake up at 3."
Christofferson is finishing school after a 25-year hiatus. She's just one of hundreds of adults coming to Utah State to finish their education or earn a second degree. According to the university's analysis office, 17 percent of main campus and extension students are 30 or older. Many balance the demands of school with a family and a full or part-time job. Christofferson and others, however, have found the help and encouragement at the university's Reentry Student Center.
"When I was scared of coming back to school, they promised me I wouldn't be the only one on campus that was older, Christofferson said. "They gave me the confidence I needed to make the jump."
The Reentry Student Center offers financial assistance, scholarships, campus orientations, and peer facilitators. A "parent locator" service tracks down students on campus if they are needed by their children. The center even has its own honor society, "Pinnacle," a national organization students can join to help build their resumes.
Before 1988, adults of both sexes returning to school were directed to USU's Women's Center for help. As the number of returning students increased, however, it became apparent that the university needed a separate organization where both men and women would feel comfortable.
"There were a growing number of men coming back to school, many who had sole custody of their kids," Janet Osborne, director of both the Women's Center and Reentry Student Center said. "Creating the Reentry Student Center was an attempt to make it easy for them to come in for services."
A re-entry student herself, Osborne knows firsthand the challenges that come with returning to school. In the early '80s, Osborne came to Utah State to finish her doctorate in education.
"It was challenging," Osborne said of caring for her two middle-school aged daughters while completing her degree. "They had to learn they were capable of fending for themselves a little, helping with the housekeeping and meals."
Osborne learned that while re-entry students face financial and academic challenges, they also worry about fitting in with their younger classmates.
The Reentry Student Center provides a variety of programs to help adults feel connected to the university. Every month the center hosts a lunch where students can eat with a peer advisor, ask questions or just enjoy the company of other adults. Osborne and her staff are also available to field questions or offer reassurance to people considering coming back to school. Each semester, she organizes a free orientation course called "Going Back is Going Forward," to inform those interested in returning to school of the resources available to them, and give them the confidence they need to make the jump.
"You might feel like the oldest person on campus, but that's not really the case," Osborne told a recent group. "I think the hardest part is just deciding to come back. When you've done that, school falls into place.
Osborne said many students worry their age will prevent them from making friends on campus, keeping up with their classmates or getting a job after graduation. She said the center teaches students how to turn their age into an asset by emphasizing their life experiences and entering careers where stability and maturity are valued.
"Age is very relative, so don't get nervous about it," she told the orientation participants. "If you leave here at 40, you still have the potential of a 25-year career."
She said that many times, older students do better in school because they are more committed to their classes.
"I've taught here for many years, and I know that professors really like older students because you guys know why you're here."
Osborne said the reentry student center plans to keep expanding. The center, which shares office space with the Women's Center, moved across the hall in the TSC into larger, newly refinished offices. She says that after her 16 years as director, the character of the students who come to the center keep her excited about her job.
"Many of them are doing this on a very limited budget, trying to care for children and hold down a job at the same time. It never fails to amaze me the things that they accomplish, and I'm glad that I can help."
Christofferson now volunteers at the center, and tells her story to prospective students at orientation meetings. This spring, she will graduate alongside her 22-year-old daughter, Chelsey.
"I'll be a registered dietitian, something I've wanted for 30 years," Christofferson said. "If I can do it, you can do it. I'm not any smarter than anyone else, but I work dang hard."