Jennifer Hrebar-Ihler will graduate from Stephens College with bachelor’s degrees in psychology and legal studies tomorrow—just a month shy of her 50th birthday.
While she knows she pushes the bounds of “non-traditional” at Stephens—her daughters are older than most of her classmates—she is among a growing group of adult students who are changing the face of college campuses across the country.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 15 percent of those attending college in the country in 2011 were what most consider “traditional” college students—18- to 22-year-olds living on campus at four-year institutions.
Five graduates who will walk across the stage at Stephens’ May Commencement tomorrow are “non-traditional.” Most agree they came to Stephens for the programs—and because they were ready to pursue their passions.
Hrebar-Ihler enjoyed a successful career in interior design before relocating from Alaska to Columbia for a fresh start. When the economy crashed in 2008, she found herself without a job but also the opportunity to reconsider her priorities.
“I decided to do something different—to pursue a career where I could feel like I was making a difference,” she said.
After exploring the counseling programs in the area, she chose Stephens because of the personal attention.
“I liked the idea of being more than just a number,” she said.
To her surprise, that translated into her social life, as well. This year, she served as senior class president.
“I was surprised that I forged connections with these women,” she said. “I was very happy that women younger than my daughters would consider me a friend.”
Michelle Marcum was also active on campus even as she balanced being a mother of two off campus.
A graphic design major, Marcum was on the staff of Creative Ink, the student-run marketing firm, and designed this year’s cover of Harbinger, the literary magazine.
Marcum delayed going to college after having children. While she found success in the workforce—easily moving up the ranks to manager at factories and restaurants—she decided in her mid-20s to pursue her passion for art.
After earning a certificate and some college credits elsewhere, she transferred to Stephens.
“Stephens offered the experience and connections you need to work in graphic design,” she said.Experiencing college elsewhere, she said, gives her a greater appreciation of her experiences at Stephens.
“Students at other schools do fine, but here, students excel,” she said. “We push each other, and there’s nothing that gets in the way.”
In June, Marcum will begin her job as a graphic designer at a local photography company.
Tera Eckerle is moving to Los Angeles after graduating in hopes of fulfilling her dream of being an actor. She was a financially independent mom when she decided to attend Stephens.
“I was bar tending and waitressing, but I didn’t want that to be my path,” she said. “I wanted to do something else.”
When she had her second child in 2012, Eckerle left school, but she was determined to come back and complete the program.
“The faculty said ‘you can do this,’” she said. “They helped me tremendously.”
In addition to a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre, Eckerle also is minoring in business and dance.
Through alumnae connections in L.A., Eckerle plans to find work and relocate her family to California.
As for Hrebar-Ihler, she’s not quite finished with her studies and is now preparing for a master’s program.
“People ask me, ‘Why would you go back to school this late in the game? Is it worth it?’” she said. “It’s a personal decision everyone has to calculate, but I couldn’t see myself working in the same business anymore. To me it was worth it to gain invaluable new skills. I’ve learned so much, I think the next 20 years will be much more satisfying. The best way to stay young is to keep pushing yourself.
“And studying alongside young women in their late teens and 20-somethings keeps you young, too. That’s a nice side benefit.”
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