Adult learner and Southwest graduate Gwendolyn McGrew (right) with Brenda Williams, Southwest’s career services director. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

by Destiny Royston, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

As the demand for workers with degrees beyond high school increases, more adults are returning to school to be competitive in the working world. In Memphis, that involves Southwest Tennessee Community College seeing more adult learners on its campus each semester.

However, one thing stays the same regardless of age or whether it has been months or years since attending college, and that is total nervousness about being on campus.

“For adult students, when they step foot onto campus after so many years, it can be a very emotional event for them to adjust,” said Diana Fedinec, director of public relations and media at Southwest.

One of the programs making it easier for adults to return to school at Southwest is Tennessee Reconnect, a program providing grants for adults 24 and older or adults classified as independent on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

“This has been our first year with Tennessee Reconnect and from fall to spring, our retention is at 80 percent, which is really great,” said Jacqueline Taylor, executive director of retention and student success at Southwest.

“A day doesn’t go by where you don’t meet a reconnector,” said Shanita Brown, director of enrollment. “They’re nervous because they feel like a different person in the classroom. But they’re excelling because they are ready.”

Southwest has mentoring programs such as Southwest Mentors Advancing Retention, Teamwork, and Success (S.M.A.R.T.S) and Saluqi Success Pathway for Adult Learners (SSPAL). S.M.A.R.T.S is for adult learners as well as traditional students who seek mentoring or resource information from the faculty.

Southwest also works with adult students who are seeking a career change.

“Some students are in a career and have reached the point where they can’t excel any further in their career,” Brown said.

Terri Royston has her mind set on completing her degree at Southwest. (Photo: Destiny Royston)

Terri Royston is one of those adult learners returning to college this fall in hopes of change in her career outlook. She began college right after graduating from Northside High School in 1979, but due to a sudden illness and becoming a caregiver to her late mother, she couldn’t continue her classes.

A kidney transplant survivor for 15 years, Royston has set her goals to move forward and finish her education at Southwest. “I chose Southwest because I am determined to finish what I started.”

Before leaving Southwest in the 80s, Royston had accumulated enough credits to only need a few more classes to receive her associate’s degree in business administration.

“I am pursuing business administration because I want a career that will allow me to apply my skills in a hospital or clinic setting. This will allow me to motivate and speak with patients who are going through similar or different illnesses that I went through,” Royston said.

“I remember the kindness from the people who worked in the hospital when I was on dialysis, so now I want to be that person who will show kindness to the next patient.”

Her intended major could open the door for that opportunity.

“There is no age limit on education,” said Royston. “You have to keep going and striving and always better yourself.”

Another adult learner, Gwendolyn McGrew, graduated from Southwest in May with her associate’s degree in psychology.

“Having a degree in this field would give me the chance to help someone else by informing them of my challenges and guiding them to do better,” said McGrew.

Before McGrew decided to enroll at Southwest, a friend recommended the TN Reconnect program and she applied.

“During an orientation session, Dr. Jacqueline Taylor mentioned we could speak with her. She even gave her cell phone number to a group of about 500 people. I thought ‘This cannot be happening,’ but Dr. Taylor is genuine and true to her word when it came to helping us,” McGrew said.

When she returned to college, it was challenging but she not only excelled in her classes but helped her peers as well.

“The kids always referred to me as Ms. Gwen,” she said. “They wanted to form study groups and I helped them out as much as I could.”

She is now a part-time test administrator at Southwest, but is seeking full-time employment more in line with her psychology degree. Her education hasn’t ended though, as she plans on receiving her bachelor’s degree as well.

“Do not allow anyone to tell you there are limitations to you getting an education. Prove them wrong. My parents did not finish high school. Although they are no longer here with me, I know my parents are looking down on me and are proud.”

Southwest also has a career services component that provides employment in the college itself. Brenda Williams, director of career services at Southwest, assists those students in finding employment.

“We continually receive job postings from employers looking to hire Southwest students and alumni,” said Williams. “Eighty-eight percent of graduates are working in positions related to their major.”

The mentoring programs, workshops and organizations have made Southwest a home where it’s never too late to earn a college education.

“We truly accept our students into our family,” Fedinec said. “They are our family.”