What gets adults to return to education? Here’s what they say.

North Carolina’s community colleges have a long history of educating students of all ages, from high school students taking college classes to retirees picking up a new hobby. Recently, however, the state’s colleges—like many across the country—have begun focusing much more heavily on recruiting adult learners. (Read a story on those efforts here.)

EducationNC, a nonprofit newsroom, has been following the developments through on-the-ground reporting at five colleges involved in NC Reconnect, a foundation-funded project to bring in more adult students this fall. Reporters at EducationNC, along with researchers at the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research, met with 11 adult learners at those community colleges. 

While no two adult learners are alike, many share similar experiences and challenges when it comes to meeting their educational goals. Here are their stories.

‘To cancel the poor curse’

Kasi Huaman, student at Fayetteville Technical Community College.
(Emily Thomas/EducationNC)

When asked why she decided to attend Fayetteville Technical Community College, Kasi Huaman didn’t hesitate: “To cancel the poor curse.”

Huaman is 26 and has a three-year-old son. Taking classes is a stepping stone to building generational wealth for Huaman and her family, she said. 

“I grew up poor, so poor,” Huaman said. “I want to change that. I want to give my son what I didn’t have.”

Enrolled in the basic building construction training program, Huaman is learning a variety of skills in the construction trades. From plumbing to HVAC to forklift training and welding, students in Huaman’s program are introduced to the knowledge and technical skills that can lead to employment opportunities. 

“I feel like this is a big opportunity for me,” Huaman said. She wants to be her own boss one day and pass something down to her son.

For Huaman, attending these classes has not been without challenges. During our interview, a classmate told us that Huaman’s car recently died, making it difficult for Huaman to find reliable and timely transportation. 

And Huaman isn’t alone. Transportation is often a significant barrier for community college students. According to a 2016 report from the American Association of Community Colleges, the average full-time community college student spends roughly $1,700 a year on transportation costs. 

While the city of Fayetteville has a bus system, both staff and students said it can be difficult to navigate — alluding to the hour or two hours you have to spend on the bus before arriving on campus. And for a single mom, two hours on a bus one way isn’t always an option. 

But Huaman is determined and said no matter what, she will find a way to class. “I want to do what I need to do to get me out of my predicament,” she said.

Finding a ‘stackable’ pathway, despite bumps along the way

Danny Williford, student at Vance-Granville Community College.
(Emily Thomas/EducationNC)

After high school, Danny Williford was a helicopter mechanic during the Vietnam War. When he left the military, Williford pursued a degree in ornamental and horticulture crop technology. After two states and a series of jobs, Williford moved to Oxford, North Carolina where he operated an Exxon store for over 20 years.

At the same time, Williford built a nursery and florist business. He eventually worked at the nursery and florist full-time, but rising healthcare premiums as a small business owner became too much of a financial burden.

Williford decided to attend Vance-Granville where he earned an licensed practical nurse credential. He worked for the hospital system as an LPN until his wife’s cancer diagnosis in 2014. His wife needed a full-time caregiver, so Williford retired.

With his wife on the mend, Williford returned to school in 2018 to pursue an registered nurse degree. It was his wife’s cancer diagnosis that made him take the leap.

But he hit a few bumps in the road, including classes that pulled down his GPA, which in turn impacted his ability to stay in the RN program.  

And that is why Williford is back at Vance-Granville taking classes to help boost his GPA. “Vance-Granville has been a blessing just sitting right here,” Williford said. “It’s an undersold asset.”

‘I want to be a helper’

Brianna Allen, student at Blue Ridge Community College. (Emily Thomas/EducationNC)

For Brianna Allen, the decision to return to school came after the death of her father.

“I want to be a helper,” Allen said. “And Blue Ridge Community College is the perfect starting place.”

Allen enrolled in the human services technology program at Blue Ridge after receiving a text message encouraging her to apply. “A text message in this day and age is quite wonderful because I work all day Monday-Friday,” she said.  

After applying, Allen was contacted within 24 hours and got the ball rolling. Now, she is in her third semester at Blue Ridge and is the current Student Government Association president. 

Even though her father’s death pushed her forward, she said there is always some fear and apprehension about returning to school as an adult. Questions come up like, “Am I going to do well? Am I smart enough?”

But you can’t let fear run your life, Allen said. “It took me six years to get back into school. I was a high school dropout,” she said. 

When asked what advice she had for adults who were deciding whether they should return to school, Allen said, “Just do it.”

Re-entering a radically different workforce

Jessica Reigle, student at Blue Ridge Community College. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Sometimes all you need is a sign. And that’s exactly what Jessica Reigle got–a light up sign on the side of the road about a Quickbooks class being offered by Blue Ridge Community College. 

Reigle had stepped out of the workforce to take care of her children. When it was time for her to return, she realized her education no longer met the demands of the workforce she was trying to enter. 

“My education was not as awesome as it was the first time around,” Reigle said. 

When Reigle called about the class, the person on the other end told her about other options that were available. She is now in the accounting and finance program and plans to transfer to Fayetteville State University.

Getting the flexibility to do college a different way

Eric Voncannon, student at Blue Ridge Community College. (Emily Thomas/EducationNC)

Eric Voncannon wasn’t happy with his career and wanted to make a change. But when COVID hit, he had trouble finding a new job. It was during that time that he started doing a lot of self-reflection and knew going back to college was the right decision. That’s when he applied to Blue Ridge’s information technology program.  

Voncannon is part of the “some college, no degree” population. He had been to college before, but something always happened, eventually forcing him to leave without finishing his degree.  

He’s one of 36 million Americans who fall into that same category. In North Carolina, alone there are 380,000 adults aged 25-44 with some college by no degree.

Both Voncannon and Reigle talked about what it was like returning to school as an older adult. For Voncannon, the flexibility with online classes has been crucial to his success.

“There is no way I could come to class every day,” he said. 

Reigle said ACA, the college transfer success course, really helped her. 

“It ensured, as an online student, that I touched all the different pieces of what was going on here on campus,” she said. “I didn’t have that the first time I was in school.”

While Reigle and Voncannon both described hesitancy to return to school, they expressed gratitude and said the decision to pursue a credential was a good one. 

“Remember, you can always find a reason not to do something,” said Voncannon.

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst and writer at EducationNC and Molly Osborne is director of news and policy for the organization. This article was produced as part of a series on how North Carolina is serving adult learners.

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