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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cissell to graduate summa cum laude

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Students like 57-year-old Penny Cissell are aware of the importance of a college degree and the advantages it provides in the working world.

There are many different paths to a college degree. For a “nontraditional” student, the journey is not as conventional or continuous as it is for others.

After high school, Penny got married and moved from Hugoton, Kansas, to Elberfeld, Indiana. She and her husband began working and raising a family. Her aspirations of attending college had to take a backseat but never completely left her mind. After her children graduated, Cissell decided her wait was over. "My husband and I both always preached to our children about the importance of a college degree,” Cissell said. “When they both finished their college educations, I decided that I would do my thing.”

Cissell enrolled at USI in the spring semester of 1999. With a full-time job in advertising at American General Finance, Cissell began her college career taking one to two online classes a semester. "At the end of a work day, I almost felt brain dead," she said. "So I had to devote my weekends to my school work." Her busy schedule prevented her from taking more than a just a few classes per semester.

Eventually, Cissell’s journey landed her in a traditional USI classroom. Because she was nontraditional, Cissell wasn’t sure how students half her age would receive her. “I found the students to be accepting and friendly,” she said. “Because I took night classes, I generally wasn't the only nontraditional student.”

Her work experience in advertising and marketing helped Cissell maintain her 4.0 grade point average.

“I've always felt I had an advantage because of what I do,” she said. “So I didn't find those classes as challenging as those outside my major.”

Spanish is one of the classes she took outside her major. “My son is part of my motivation for taking the Spanish course,” she said. “I've always been interested in learning a language, and of course it’s become such a common language.

“Now, my son, engaged to a girl from Mexico, has learned Spanish,” said Cissell. “He's fairly fluent, but obviously that was an incentive for me.”

Will she now be able to carry on conversations with her son’s future in-laws? “I probably won’t be able to speak to them, but at least I’ll be able to be polite,” she joked.

Eight years after she began her college career, Cissell is graduating summa cum laude. "I never thought about the end for the longest time,” she said. “Now that it's actually here, it's like wow, here it is.”

She can imagine herself if she went directly to college after high school. “I think I would have been a more confident person sooner,” she said. “College forces you into situations where you have to learn how to handle yourself.”

For Cissell, her degree is more than just a career catapult and tangible validation of her years of hard work. Her bachelor's degree in public relations and advertising erased the regret she felt for not being a college graduate.

Now that she has fulfilled her goal, Cissell will recommend college classes to others.

“I'm big on the college experience for everyone at any age,” she said. “I don't think age matters. It's been great for me, and I encourage everyone that I meet who is talking about going college to do it because it's worth it, and it has a lot of rewards.”

Author’s Note:
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a few characteristics to identify nontraditional students are: a college student that delays enrollment (does not enter college the same calendar year that they graduated high school), a student working a full-time job while in school, a student that attends part-time for at least part of the academic year, or someone who has dependents other than a spouse (usually children).

However, the most common association with a nontraditional student is age. The label seems to be reserved for students middle-aged or older returning to school to begin or finish a college degree. However, that is an obvious misconception. A 2002 special analysis by the NCES found that nearly three-quarters of undergraduates are in some way “nontraditional.”



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