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​SCE student Laurie Vario studies in her home office.

SCE Mentoring Program Helps Adults Returning to College

(Editor’s Note: The following news feature coincides with the School of Continuing Education’s celebration of “Non-Traditional Student Recognition Week,” from Nov. 7-11.)

Providence, R.I.--Laurie Vario is a “non-traditional student:” She’s 46, married with two children, works full time as a marketing representative for an insurance company, and this fall returned to college for the first time in more than a decade.

Vario is taking an online course through the Providence College School of Continuing Education (SCE) toward a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies.

When she’s wondered how to juggle homework with family demands, or whether to take a course on campus next semester, Vario has turned to Linda Camara, one of 19 experienced SCE students who volunteer to help newcomers through a mentoring program introduced last spring by SCE Dean Janet Castleman and academic counselor Jennifer Andrews. 

“It’s just been wonderful, having (Camara) share her experience with me,” said Vario, who lives in Smithfield, R.I. “She checks in with me on how things are going, and she encouraged me with my mid-term. She’s offered advice on taking a course on campus next semester. Knowing that I have somebody I can talk with, who can relate to where I’m at, has been terrific.”

Returning to college can be a daunting task for adults, because they face a host of competing demands, Andrews noted. While the College’s Office of Academic Services and SCE offer excellent support, students sometimes need the benefit of another student’s experience, Andrews said.

That’s where the mentoring program comes in. At the start of the semester, each volunteer mentor is assigned two to three new students to contact by e-mail. The mentors provide a cell phone number and say they are available to answer questions, meet for coffee, and offer advice. It’s left to the new students to respond, because participation is not mandatory, Andrews said.

Last spring, 15 mentors aided 38 new students. This fall, 18 students are helping 50 newcomers, with some mentors enjoying the program so much they continue to serve even after graduating last spring.

“When I asked for mentors, I got a great response,” said Andrews. “People want to give back. They remember how they felt when they were new students. They’ve said that they wish this program was in place when they were getting started.”

Changes in learning

Michael E. Bibeault of North Providence, R.I., who will complete a bachelor’s degree in the humanities in May, is volunteering as a mentor for the second time.

He communicates with two students by e-mail. They ask him about the workload for courses, how to balance school with work and family, study tips, and how to delegate time.

In the past, he said, students have expressed apprehension about taking required courses in theology and philosophy after being out of school for such a long time.

Andrews pointed out that Bibeault is a good one to reassure them, because he is taking four courses this semester while working full time as an insurance adjustor. ​He has also volunteered on campus for the Friar 5K road race and on planning committees for SCE events. 

Bibeault, 49, has been taking courses at PC year-round since September 2010. He had not been a student since 1991.

“In those days there was no ‘distance learning’ because there was no Internet,” Bibeault said. “We looked things up in books. We typed papers or paid people to type them. There have even been changes in how courses are taught. I remember lectures in lecture halls. Now there’s PowerPoint and e-mailed assignments.     

“If they had had this (mentoring) program the first time I came back I would have taken part enthusiastically,” said Bibeault.

Importance of continuing education

The SCE, then known as the Extension Division of Providence College, was the College’s first school, admitting its first students in 1918.

Today, more than 400 students are taking courses through the SCE. Some take classes for enrichment, though most enroll in one of the school’s eight bachelor’s degree programs, four associate’s degree programs, or seven certificate programs. Some study online through the ANGEL (A New Global Environment for Learning) platform.

“So many of our students are incredibly happy to be here. Just being a part of PC means so much to so many of them,” said Andrews.

Students range in age from relatively recent high school graduates to senior citizens, Andrews said. Some are taking classes to prepare for MBA programs, CPA exams, or medical school and health degrees. Many students have families and full-time jobs and still take two to four courses a semester, Andrews said.

Those who are at least 24 and meet certain other criteria--such as being married, married with children, single parents, or veterans--are known as “non-traditional students.” Younger students who are self-supporting can also be included in the category. This week, Nov. 7-11, PC is joining the Association for Non-traditional Students in Higher Education, an international advocacy and support group, in celebrating “Non-traditional Student Recognition Week.”

To mark the occasion, students can stop by the SCE office in Harkins Hall anytime during the week for snacks and drinks to take to class, for 10 percent discount vouchers for the PC Bookstore and Alumni Hall Food Court, and for raffles and giveaways, which will include tickets to men’s basketball and hockey games, a $25 gift certificate to the bookstore, and SCE merchandise.

Bibeault said he believes the importance of continuing education programs will only increase as more adults “re-invent themselves” in an effort to cope with the difficult economy.

Vario said she is lucky to have “a terrific career” but has returned to school to demonstrate to her children, ages 16 and 6, the value of education. Her husband, too, has returned to school to pursue a doctorate, she said.

“If I had had my degree when I started out, I don’t think I would have had to work so hard to prove myself,” said Vario. “I think it limited a lot of doors for me. Especially for my daughter, I want to be a good role model. I want to start her down the right path early.”    

 

--Vicki-Ann Downing

 

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