The 51 bus squeaks to a stop at the corner of Dana and Ledgewood. Donna Fambro picks up her bag, grabs the railing and carefully walks down the steps. She moves to the sidewalk in front of the faded wooden bench, crosses the street and starts down Ledgewood into the heart of Xavier’s campus. Dressed in thin blue jeans, a beaded string belt, red platform shoes and a faded red bandanna wrapped around her graying head, she’s an incongruous presence on this traditional Catholic campus shows. But it’s much more than fashion.
At age 56, she’s not only twice the age of the young students sharing the sidewalks with her, she’s lived the hard and torrid life they have only read about in their textbooks. Drug abuse, alcoholism, heroin addiction, a year in state prison. What began as a life of hopes for Fambro was quickly drowned out by a childhood of violence, abuse and neglect. Happiness came at the end of a needle. Home was often in a car.
Rock bottom hit 12 years ago, just after she was released from prison and came to Cincinnati to start a new life. She hadn’t bathed in weeks. Her hair was matted and falling out. She was sick, desperate for a fix but too strung out to work. Finally, she called a drug counselor she knew and began, again, the nightmare of painful heroin withdrawal. Her real goal, she says, was to clean the drugs out of her system so she could get high again. But then she met a woman who changed her life.
The woman was everything Fambro wanted to be-a recovered drug user who “looked so professional, so good, she had her nails and hair done and nice clothes and a nice car, and for her to sit there and tell me she had shot dope, I couldn’t believe it.”
She even pushed up her sleeves and showed Fambro the tracks on her arms. “That she was living in the gutter like I lived in the gutter, and now looked like she did-I wanted to be like that.”
Fambro spent the next year in a halfway house and slowly began recovering pieces of the old self she’d lost long ago and discovering new pieces she never knew she had. She even began thinking about finishing the education she once started. Her daughter, a Xavier student, introduced her to the CAPS program-the Center for Adult and Part-time Students-which handles all students ages 22 and older. Fambro took the plunge and decided to enroll.
Now, twice a week, she sets aside her days to come to Xavier, where she is rebuilding the future she spent a lifetime destroying. And she’s not alone. Fambro is part of a steadily growing group of older adults who are taking advantage of the increasing opportunities for continuing education.
At Xavier, the enrollment of adults has grown at a rate exceeding that of the nation, where adult students make up about 4 percent of all college enrollment. In 1970, there were 2.4 million adult students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2000, there were 5.9 million. Now they number an estimated 6.8 million.
Nearly 600 of them are on Xavier’s campus in any given semester. Some are older than others. All, however, are non-traditional students-people the University has always striven to attract. From the beginning of the Jesuit order, the mission has been to give opportunities to all students no matter their age, their socio-economic status or even, as in the case of Fambro, their torrid past.
Fambro briskly steps along toward her 8:30 a.m. sociology class, greeting others as they pass. “How you doing, sister,” she says. She gets to class early, but that’s by design. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she rises at 5:00 a.m. in the apartment she shares with her 16-year-old granddaughter, and packs herself a sandwich, some popcorn and a bag of carrots to nibble on to stave off the effects of her diabetes. At 7:15 a.m., she gathers her books and boards the bus for the 20-minute ride to campus.
She takes four classes both of those days, finishing around 6:00 p.m.-spending more than 10 hours on campus. Twice she’s stayed all night when the city was snowed in. But she doesn’t mind. When she’s at Xavier, she says, she feels safe. She finds quiet reflection in Bellarmine chapel, and her upbeat spirit is appreciated-she’s been known to dance a jig in class when she’s happy. And she’s not shy about sharing her life stories with classmates.
She could have finished her liberal arts degree a year ago but chose to pursue a degree in social work instead, hoping to help others by drawing on her own experiences. Encouraged by her advisor, she contacted state officials and learned they will consider waiving a ban on licensing ex-convicts if she submits proper documentation.
“I’m not going to let nothing stop me, sister,” she says, drawing on a cigarette. “I’m too old. A lot of people have helped me to get here, and I appreciate every penny I have put here, because what I have here is so worthwhile and valuable to me. As much money as I’ve wasted on drugs and alcohol, this is not going to be hard to pay it back, because I’m thankful to have an education.”
Until 1995, adult students at Xavier were treated much like traditional undergraduates. But when the numbers began to decline, the University realized it needed to change its approach to serve a student body clamoring for better options. It opened the weekend degree program, and the results were swift and rewarding.
“It was wildly popular,” says Mary Kay Meyer, interim director for CAPS. “Students couldn’t get this kind of program on the weekends at other institutions. At the same time, adult evening and day student numbers stayed the same, which told us our model met a previously unmet need in the market.”
The first year, 100 students enrolled, and by 2000, there were 335 weekend students, pushing the total number of degree-seeking adult students to 697. About 20 percent of all adult students have no previous college experience. Most, about 70 percent, are women, and about 20 percent are African American or other minorities-a telling reflection of the community’s workforce.
“It was because of the time frame,” Meyer says. “Saturday is just like another work day, but they have more opportunities for child care. Many say they can’t take more than one class in the evenings. When they choose weekends over nights, it’s because of the way it’s offered.” By attending two eight-week terms each semester, weekend degree students are considered part-time yet may complete 30 credit hours in the same amount of time as a full-timer at a fraction of the cost. And the accelerated format allows students to graduate in about four years. Most people do it in two.
On a balmy friday night in September, William Wyatt sits at the kitchen table cramming his theology and marketing homework. His friends are out having a beer. But Wyatt, 41, is bent on finishing his degree. After all, it’s been 15 years since he started school at a community college, working on a degree that never materialized after he was hired full time. Now he’s an information technology manager at Procter & Gamble.
“With the plant closings and downsizings, I was nervous because I didn’t have a degree,” Wyatt says. “But I also want to increase my business skills.”
By Saturday morning, his papers are written, and Wyatt leaves his wife and three children snug in their beds and drives to Xavier to discuss the merits of Buddhism or global economics. A light breeze outside rustles the drying leaves of an early fall on campus. The sound of a distant lawnmower creeps in. But Wyatt says it’s worth losing his Saturdays because his bachelor’s degree in business management will prepare him better for his job. The fact that P&G is paying for it makes it all the sweeter. And getting up on a Saturday morning is better than his last college program, which held classes two nights a week. He didn’t like missing his daughter’s volleyball games.
“The weekend program helped increase my family time,” he says. He intends on completing his M.B.A. “My company invests in me, and I take advantage of it and grow, and they reap the benefits, too. I think it works out for both of us.”
For the faculty, older, more mature students like Wyatt are a joy. They bring so much to the classroom because these students have lived-some more than others.
“You get dedicated learners,” says professor Art Shriberg, who’s been teaching adult students at Xavier since the mid-1990s. “They’re also verbal, articulate. They challenge me all the time. I teach them differently than I do undergrads. I create settings where learning can happen. They’re more likely to have experienced the world and to be able to integrate real life into the courses I teach. They all have a tale to tell.”
On the last day of his Saturday leadership course, Shriberg invites his graduating seniors to give their own commencement speeches. He invariably gets life stories that are moving: One man giddily told how it had taken him 14 years to finish his degree, while a woman explained how she needed to prove to herself that her brains were more important than her looks. She graduated with a 4.0 GPA.
But as the number of adult students has grown, so has the competition for their enrollment dollars. In addition to other area colleges, about a half dozen newcomers such as the University of Phoenix have moved into the region, offering combinations of on-site and online classrooms.
The effect is telling. Since that peak in 2000, Meyer has seen a slow decline in enrollment of weekend students, now at 277 this fall, and in CAPS students overall, now at 557. The University hired a consultant to study its enrollment picture, particularly those who apply but don’t enroll, and those who leave before completing their degrees. Meyer suspects cost is one cause. Also, the region’s economy may play a role. Many students’ tuition is paid for by their employers, and when the economy dips, so does the number of students.
Lori Stackpole is moving slowly. Very slowly. It’s a wintery Saturday morning, and her stomach is doing flip-flops. She drags herself from bed and tries to stem the feeling with juice and crackers. It doesn’t work, and she heads for the bathroom. Finally, after the queasiness ebbs, she grabs her books and keys and heads for the car.
Still queasy at the start of her 8:30 a.m. class, she checks to be sure she packed the crackers and prays her stomach settles down. Somehow she gets through the day. It’s been the same sequence nearly every Saturday since she learned in January she was pregnant.
Finishing her degree has been a long haul for Stackpole. She attended a community college in Georgia, continued part time when she moved to Florida so her husband could earn a chemical engineering degree and stopped altogether when they moved to Cincinnati for his job. A supervisor at her new job encouraged her to finish her degree. She started Xavier’s weekend program in 2001 and now, at age 31, she’s working full time and entering the final stretch for a bachelor’s degree in business management-a degree eight years in the making.
Then, boom, she learns she’s pregnant and must face the most difficult challenge yet to her long, drawn-out college career-morning sickness.
Such dedication is admirable, but not unusual, says Karol King, a longtime adjunct professor in the weekend program.
“It’s a huge commitment to work all week, and many of my students take morning and afternoon classes. That’s a whole Saturday, and I give homework. Then they have their jobs and their families. It’s not for everybody. I encourage them that once it’s finished, they’ll be glad.”
King’s theological foundations class is known for the intimate, personal discussions that always take place. Students analyze the similarities and differences of the world’s religions. The class is one of Artis Hickman’s favorites.
“Her class did a lot for me. I was so turned off from religion, and it definitely helped me.”
Hickman, like Stackpole, is one of those who might have quit long ago. His education began 20 years ago when he was in the Air Force and stationed in Korea. He always wanted to be an engineer, so he took some prerequisite courses. He took more classes after being reassigned back to the States after his mother’s death, but when Cincinnati Bell needed technicians, he retired from the Air Force and came to Cincinnati.
Yet he couldn’t resist the classroom, so in 2002 he started the weekend program. Though his work schedule disrupted his studies several times, he remains a part-time Saturday student, picking up some evening business courses. The last course to complete his degree is Spanish 102. It starts in January, and he’s dreading it.
“I have a brain freeze-part of my brain refuses to get it. People hate math. I love math. But Spanish is such a struggle.”
When he’s finished, he plans on starting an auto repair business. “It’s bittersweet now because it’s coming to an end, as much as I’d like to finish,” he says. “Maybe I’ll come back for a master’s degree.”