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Back to School

A grown-up's tale of a return to academia


Whenever one of my friends says, "Oh, I was such a geek in high school," I always have something to top it.

Math relay.

It is exactly as geeky as it sounds. A series of algebra problems were written on the blackboard for each school's team. Then I and three other seventh-graders proudly represented the West Junior High Bullpups by running up to the board, grabbing a piece of chalk and furiously scribbling on the board, manipulating the variables until the solution for "x =" was circled at the bottom. Then we ran back and tagged the next person on our team, who sprinted to the board to attack the next problem, chalk in hand.

I had plenty of nerd cred in junior high and high school. I took accelerated algebra and calculus. I won Borah's physics prize--a copy of a biography of Richard Feynman.

But by the time I got to college, I had also started writing a lot of poetry and some short fiction. I decided to pursue a creative writing degree and barely gave math and science another thought. During my entire four years at college, I only took one math class.

In the nine years since earning my creative writing degree, I've been a journalist in the Boise area. In that time, I've broken some major stories. (Remember the second Boise Tower developer having five bankruptcies and then going into foreclosure on the Hole? That was totally me.) I've done stories on pit bull maulings, on a man who was struck by lightning, on an escaped alligator roaming Nampa neighborhoods. I've raised awareness of economic and political issues, written stories that inspired people, and won awards.

But none of that meant much when I was let go from my full-time job and had to compete with a gazillion laid-off reporters for reporting positions. I can speak from personal experience when I say the competition for even for part-time jobs at newspapers in Boise is extremely heavy.

Unfortunately, I can't make a living writing freelance stories for the Boise Weekly. I tried applying for a few journalism jobs out of state and was on the short list for a tech reporter position in San Jose. But I soon realized that I wasn't excited about a new job in a new city. I was dreading and grieving the prospect of leaving Boise.

At the same time, I was pondering something I'd often wondered while I was still a full-time reporter: What would my life be like if I'd pursued math and science and explored that side of my brain?

I finally started asking myself another question: Why don't I find out?

A lot of the technology entrepreneurs I interviewed as a reporter told me that Boise needs more people with computer science degrees. One of my former newspaper colleagues was also pursuing a computer science degree at the time, and my interest was piqued.

So I enrolled at Boise State for the spring semester as a second-degree-seeking student and declared a major in computer science. Suddenly, after almost a decade, there I was back in school, handling caustic chemicals and radioactive substances in chem lab and staying up late to write essays and mathematical proofs.

That makes me one of more than 200 students going to Boise State this year for a second degree. University President Bob Kustra said in his State of the University address Aug. 20 that this fall, Boise State has seen an astonishing 46 percent increase in enrollment of students seeking a second degree.

I thought it would be awkward sitting in classes with kids 10 years younger than me. Instead, I've been surprised by how many adults have been in most of my classes. I've met women who are getting back into the workforce after raising their families, men making new lives for themselves after years in the military, and laid-off Micron employees taking technology classes to help them form new ventures.

And, like me, there are victims of the economy who decided to do something altogether different with their lives after they were laid off or let go.

Last May, my friend Kevin Labrum was laid off at The Cop Shop after eight years of working there, and just six months after the business was sold to new owners.

"I never would have left the security of a job to go back to school," Labrum said.

"When you own a house ..." his wife, Kim Labrum, added.

"And pay bills ..." Kevin said.

"It's even scarier in this job market," Kim said.

Kevin has had a taste of just how tough the job market is. "I was looking every day, and there was just nothing out there and I finally just went ..." he trailed off, making a dismissive gesture. "The only stuff out there is jobs that pay far less, and they can pay someone else to do it for a lot less."

The Labrums didn't make the decision for Kevin to go back to school lightly. It was only after months of searching that they decided he should pick up where he left off in 1987. That was when Kevin dropped out of Boise State, with a year and a half to go on a business administration degree.

This time, though, it was time for a different direction.

"All you had to do is look at my grades," he said. "There was no real commitment on my part."

It was easy for Kevin to figure out what to do this time. He's been active in community theater in Boise for years. He starred in Absence of a Cello and The Movie Game earlier this year at Stage Coach Theatre, and he's directing the September show at Stage Coach, Duck Hunter Shoots Angel.

Ten days before he was laid off, Kevin went to visit an old friend who works as a professor. He sat in on some of his friend's classes, and for once had the chance to experience things from the teacher's side of the classroom. "This feels really good," he said. Kevin realized he enjoys sharing his experience and that teaching might not be a bad fit.

Kevin is enrolled in classes for the fall, when he'll be studying theater arts and secondary education. He has his core requirements out of the way because of his prior years at Boise State, and he will have to go to school a lot longer for his new degree than for business administration. But it's worth it, he said.

"You should go to school to get an education in something you enjoy," Kevin Labrum said. "The first time, I didn't do that. I did a degree in something I thought would make me a lot of money."

Adults, like Kevin and me, who have decided to make a change in their lives are driving major enrollment increases at colleges and universities in the Treasure Valley.

College of Western Idaho officials announced in August that 3,500 students are enrolled for fall, three times the number that enrolled for spring semester. The community college announced it would increase class capacity by 20 percent to meet the demand. Boise State had a 4-percent increase in traditional student enrollment this fall, not including the addition of approximately 90 new students returning to college for their second degree.

"The combination of College of Western Idaho and Boise State available to students is an effective way to meet the needs of the community," Boise State Communications Director Frank Zang said. "We want to meet the educational needs of our citizens and the workforce needs of the business sector."

Both schools are providing new opportunities to adults going back to school. CWI opened last January and is offering more opportunities for Treasure Valley residents to get professional and technical degrees.

CWI and other community colleges like Treasure Valley Community College tend to be geared to adults going back to school. CWI's new president, Dr. Berton Glandon, said in a State of the School address that at the last community college where he served as president, Arapahoe Community College near Denver, typically 70 percent of the students already had a bachelor's degree, master's degree or Ph.D.

"Why are they back at a community college?" he asked. "I'll never forget talking to a Ph.D. in philosophy who said, 'I'm taking the welding program so I can go to work.' I said, 'Good for you.'"

Boise State is also providing new options for adults looking to go back to school and finish up degrees they already started. A year ago, Boise State added a new Bachelor of General Studies program specifically targeting adults who have already taken at least 60 college credits and have several years of life experience outside college. They can design their own degree that incorporates their prior classes, allowing them to graduate sooner.

Brent Parkin is one returning student using Boise State's general studies program. "This is kind of a dream come true," said Parkin, whose struggle with cancer might have made it impossible for him to earn his bachelor's without the general studies program.

Several years ago, Parkin and his wife decided to go back to school together. Parkin was a high school dropout, but he earned his GED and an associate's degree from Treasure Valley Community College. But recurring bouts with melanoma interrupted his course work as he was pursuing his bachelor's degree.

"It seems like every other semester, it would flare up and I'd have to go in for surgery," Parkin said.

"It's been seven years," he said. "I should have my doctorate."

Hospitalizations made it difficult for Parkin to follow a traditional degree program. "I almost gave up on my degree," he said.

But Parkin was working toward something big. Parkin's parents both worked in education, and his father taught summer school for special-needs students. After Parkin dropped out of school and served a mission in Australia, his father asked him to help out in the summer school program.

Parkin is proud of his work in the program. "I worked one-on-one with one student to keep him out of danger and develop behaviors to help him function in society," he said.

The experience inspired Parkin to work with at-risk youth and kids with autism and Down syndrome for eight years at schools in Meridian, Middleton and San Clemente, Calif.

"I've seen family members get some pretty nasty divorces ... kids that are at risk and in broken homes," he said. "I have a passion for that, to make sure they have every opportunity to be successful."

His experience with kids in the middle of messy divorces made him think he could do the most good for kids if he changed careers and specialized in family law.

Parkin's general studies adviser helped him design a program that worked with the classes he'd been able to take at Boise State and let him craft his own major geared to family law--a mix of psychology, law and family studies. He's studying for the LSAT now and hopes to be able to enroll in law school in 2010, when Concordia University plans to open a law school in Boise.

"I'm just fueled by finishing," Parkin said.

Another one of the hundreds of adults going back to school at Boise State is Rose Penwell. She's using the same general studies program to help her finish a bachelor's degree that she started almost 10 years ago.

Penwell started a teaching degree, following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, both of whom were teachers. But she was going to school on and off. After 10 years, some of her credits will begin to expire, so she wanted to complete her degree right away and get her credits locked in. All she had to do was finish her student teaching, but she couldn't do that when she was on call as a midwife.

Penwell found her passion in midwifery, and has worked with Mercy in Action--a nonprofit that provides services at clinics in the Philippines, Southeast Asia and Mexico, and founded by her mother-in-law--for years.

Penwell always wanted to finish her degree in education because Mercy in Action has a midwifery school. She'd like to teach the midwifery model of care to people in other countries so they can continue to provide needed services.

With the deadline to lock in her classes looming, and having trouble meeting the student teaching requirements because of her on-call schedule, she realized designing her own degree under the general studies program was her best option to give her a flexible program she could finish. She customized her degree to include teaching, medical anthropology, foreign languages like Tagalog, childhood development and multicultural perspectives.

Boise State is also one of many colleges and universities that offer the Federal TRIO Program, which is designed to help low-income, first-generation and minority students. The TRIO program can be a good option for nontraditional students, said Ellie Pierce, an administrative assistant at Boise State's School of Social Work. She said she hopes her husband, Shane Pierce, will be able to take advantage of the program.

"My husband is a classic [case]," she said. Shane dropped out of high school and worked for several years in the construction industry. But he had a series of knee injuries while working for a couple different companies. For the first two injuries, workman's compensation paid for repair surgeries. But on the third, the workman's compensation provider paid him just $7,000 for an injury that required a total knee replacement worth $25,000. The family scraped together the rest of the money on their own.

"He was kicked to the curb by the private workman's comp company," Ellie said.

Not long after that, Shane went to work for a different company that laid him off when construction work dried up.

Shane is finishing up work on his GED, and he and Ellie hope he can finish it in time for next spring semester at Boise State, where he will be a first-generation college student with an undeclared major.

Ellie is going back to school as well, using the general studies program. She's designing her degree with psychology, management and leadership training classes and statistics, which she hopes will help in her career advancement at Boise State. She'd like to go on to get her master's degree in academic advising. She's excited that Shane will be going to school with her.

"I'm not sure what Shane's going to go into," she said. "He's a blank slate." She said she's not going to try to push him into one area of study or another. "The last thing I want to do is say, 'Oh, I know exactly what you should do,'" she said.

But in some ways, it doesn't matter what he chooses to study. "Any degree helps earning potential," she said. "Having a degree would help me anywhere."

And while a degree certainly helps, sometimes, a second one is necessary--as I found out. I may have made up my mind what degree to pursue, but beyond that, like Shane Pierce, I don't have a lot of direction yet. I don't know exactly what I'll be doing with my degree.

What I do know is that I'm enjoying the process. I've learned to write a few minor Java programs, and since I didn't know the first thing about code a year ago, I always get a little thrill when they work like they're supposed to. I'm working hands-on with wires and chips in one of my labs. And I'm back doing math again. I'm computing the value of three-dimensional objects in calculus, and I've also learned that 1 + 1 = 1 (at least in Boolean arithmetic). It's the sort of thing that almost makes you want to sprint up to the blackboard, chalk in hand, solve a problem, and then run back to high-five your teammates.

Almost. I'm not that much of a geek anymore.