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Nonprofit supports adults who come back to college

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Wendy Johnson had an idea of what she had wanted to major in while she was enrolled at the University of Phoenix’s Philadelphia campus – human services. But that would change over the course of her journey through college, mainly because she was unsure about how to navigate her educational path.

Johnson had been out of school for years before starting college. She struggled at first and thought that maybe attending college was not for her. For one thing, fears were bubbling up inside of her. She was an older student working among younger peers, and holding down a full-time job added an extra challenge.

Ultimately, Johnson stopped her educational career for a time while she decided what she wanted to do next.

“That particular school, it was like 60 percent teamwork and 5 percent your own work, so I had to rely on other people to get the work done. Then a lot of times, I had to take the lead because my grade was dependent on other people and I didn’t like that.”

Johnson, a senior administrative assistant at Independence Blue Cross, never saw herself earning her associate’s or bachelor’s degree from a major university. She wanted her degrees, but wanted something more suited to her needs.

Wendy Johnson went back to school and got her degree with the help of Graduate Philadelphia.

After attending a few seminars and presentations, Johnson was able to connect with Graduate Philadelphia, a nonprofit that assists adults returning to college. The organization became Johnson’s personal GPS, helping her navigate through the various barriers she was encountering and offering support and guidance overall.

“They kind of navigated me through the roadblocks, because I had no idea what I was doing,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know you had to pay financial aid back. I didn’t know what classes to pick or what school to go to.”

Johnson eventually settled on attending Peirce College, thanks to Graduate Philadelphia. Though she took an intensive course load, it was the type of setting that Johnson was looking for.

She was able to graduate last spring with degrees in business and with full honors, something she never pictured herself accomplishing.

Working with ‘comebackers’

Barbara Mattleman, executive director of Graduate Philadelphia, has worked with many returning adult learners — sometimes called “come-backers” — who have stories like Johnson’s.

“It is hard to go back to college as an adult,” Mattleman said. “You might have been out of school for one year; you might have been out of school for 30 years. So what we really need to do is be a resource, be a cheerleader, and nudge them a little bit and say that you can do it.”

People end their college careers early for various reasons, including financial costs.

The largest group of people that Mattleman’s organization works with attends the Community College of Philadelphia because it’s cost-effective.

“When you’re a student in high school, there is a lot of support around you. You have people saying to you, ‘Here’s how to fill out this paper,’ ‘Here’s how to do this,’” Mattleman said. “When you’re an adult, though, many times you’re on your own. You still have to do all of that stuff. We are here to say to them: If you need our help, we are here to help you. If you need help filling out the financial aid forms, if you need support, come on in.”

Mattleman said many adults who come to Graduate Philadelphia are ready to return to school, but once they begin to research what they might want to study, it may take them a little longer.

It also depends, Mattleman said, on what a person’s goals are — why they might want to go back to school.

“Every year, we have a couple of thousand people in the pipeline,” Mattleman said. “It doesn’t mean they went back to school; it does mean that they are interested.”

Johnson hinted at the possibility of returning to school to earn a master’s degree, though she’s not committed to the idea just yet. Even though she graduated from Pierce, she said, Graduate Philadelphia continues to keep in contact with her.

She would like to work in the nonprofit sector and do advocacy work, becoming a voice for people who feel as if they don’t have one.

“Every day you wake up and breathe, you can go to school, and I think fear stops a lot of people,” Johnson said. “Especially comebackers, because they don’t think they can fit in with the younger group, and we both can learn from one another.”

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