Long journey to degree leads to “sweeter reward” for Hollinger
The first time she enrolled at USI—right out of high school—Erin Hollinger, Program Associate for the College Achievement Program (CAP), dropped out after a semester.
The second time she enrolled—the following fall—she didn’t make it that far. “I signed up but never came,” she says.
Instead, she got married, moved far from home (twice, before returning to Mt. Vernon) and had four children. Almost 20 years passed. And then, a few months after accepting a job at USI, she enrolled for a third time—with the encouragement of her supervisor. “She said, ‘Just take one class and see if you like it.’”
That class was Fundamentals of Economics with Tim Mahoney, and Hollinger, who took advantage of USI’s Fresh Start program, did like it. “Of course, everybody loves Tim, so that probably was about the best class I could have picked, just because he’s a really good teacher,” she says. “I realized … how much they (professors) care about their students. It changed a lot of my mindset of what USI was.”
After that first semester, in the spring of 2013, Hollinger upped her course load, taking the maximum 15 credit hours allowed annually with the employee tuition fee waiver; her kids were 13, 11, 9 and 7.
Seven years later, she will become a first-generation college graduate, with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice—a field that’s always interested her. “I was looking back at what I did out of high school. I think I was disappointed in myself on some level, and once I knew I had four kids coming up, I just wanted to set an example for them that [it] could be done.”
While working full-time, Hollinger lugged homework to weeknight practices and weekend wrestling meets, often ending up back at the kitchen table for family study sessions. “The running joke was it was kind of a race to see who graduated first,” she says. “This year, my oldest son is graduating from high school, so our joke now is once he gets his graduation stuff, we’re going to get pictures with our robes on.”
The family’s USI legacy will grow even stronger in the fall, when her son joins his older sister, an incoming junior, as a Screaming Eagle. And there just may be another “race” to graduation; Hollinger plans to pursue her master’s degree in criminal justice (MACJ) when USI begins offering it next spring. In addition to her work with CAP, she’d like to one day teach an introductory level criminal justice course. “I think I’ve built my self-confidence up a lot that I’m able to do these things that I guess, at one time, I thought weren’t ever going to happen,” she says.
“I think it’s a sweeter reward, just because it’s taken a long time.”