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Non-traditional graduates earn degrees while balancing family and work

They’re a few decades older than most other graduates who will take part in commencement ceremonies at Pittsburg State University this weekend, but that will make graduating all the more enjoyable, they say.

LeeAnn Kershner, 42, and Joanna Rhodes, 45, are among a growing number of students returning to college later in life, often juggling kids, jobs and extracurricular activities with classes .

Currently, one in 10 college students in the United States is age 40 or older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2027, an estimated 3.3 million students will fall into this age group.

“Going back to school allowed me to become that version of who I’m meant to be,” Rhodes said. “Growth never stops.”

First generation graduate

After high school, Kershner earned a cosmetology license, married, started a family, and worked in a salon for 15 years before moving to Pittsburgh. In 2016, she took a leap of faith and signed up for PSU.

“When I started school, my husband Mike and I were both full-time students – he was finishing a degree he had started 25 years before,” she said. “He worked full-time and part-time, and I worked part-time. We also had three young children.

When Mike graduated in 2018, LeeAnn took a break from school to work full time and put the family back on a solid financial footing.

They bought a house and renovated it so that Mike’s mother could move in with them. She became an active volunteer in their children’s activities and schools. And then the pandemic hit.

“I had to quit my job to stay home with the kids, and at that point I decided it would be the perfect time to go back to school and finish my education,” LeeAnn said.

The transition to student status has sometimes been difficult for her. But the teachers and staff encouraged her.

“They really care about the students and support them, regardless of age,” she said. “They stood up for me, supported me, advised me, invested me and encouraged me. They went above and beyond to make sure I did well in school and that the other areas of my life – being a wife and a mother – didn’t hurt. were not overlooked.

His family too.

“My children have inspired and motivated me. I think education is valuable and important, and my husband and I want to set an example for our children,” she said. “It wasn’t easy for us as non-traditional college students with kids, but we did it and we’re both first-generation college graduates!”

On Saturday, she will earn her bachelor’s degree in general studies, with enough hours in psychology to constitute a specialization.

“I feel excited to have finished my homework, sad because school will be over and because I generally like learning and classes, and proud because I did it,” she said. “It wasn’t always easy and I graduated with honors.”

And, she started a job as a preschool teacher at Countryside Christian School – a job she has a passion for.

“It’s fulfilling and I work with amazing people,” she said.


“I did it for me”

As soon as Joanna Rhodes graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 2000, she set herself a second goal: to one day go back to school to earn a Masters of Science in Nursing.

“I remember when my husband Drew and I started dating saying I would go back one day,” said Rhodes, who works at Girard Medical Center and wants to become a college nurse educator.

Twenty-two years after earning his first degree and setting his goal, Rhodes will receive his master’s degree on Saturday with a focus on education.

“I started in January 2020, almost exactly 20 years after my first degree, and right before COVID shut everything down,” she said. “The hardest thing? Remembering how to study and write articles. And technology has changed a lot.

She remodeled her morning and evening routines to achieve success, but it was still difficult.

“Having three kids who are very active in sports, dancing, karate and gymnastics, and a husband who travels for our business, Ron’s Supermarket, took a lot of planning and the help of others,” she said. .

This includes in-laws Ron and Barbara Rhodes, and parents Mark and Pam Walker who moved to the area last year to help with the children.

“We’ve also moved twice in the last year,” Rhodes said. “I’m not sure I could have made it without all the support.”

His children were also among his biggest motivations for finishing. But there was a time when she questioned her ability to do so.

“I was so stressed out by my own expectations and trying to meet everyone’s expectations,” she said. “Once I realized I was the only one putting so much pressure on myself, everything became easier and nothing was going to stop me. My kids just wanted me to be happy and available. It was something thing I had to do for myself.

Incredibly, during her studies, she also trained and competed in three triathlons.

“As parents, we always value our children very much and tend to forget about each other,” she said. “I gave myself permission to win, so I could be the best mother and wife in my family.”

She was also encouraged by faculty and staff at the Irene Ransom Bradley School of Nursing.

“All teachers have high expectations of students and are easy to approach,” she said. “I never felt like I was alone.”

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