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Older students add diversity, life experience to Sac State campus

Sacramento State's Project Rebound program, which helps formerly incarcerated students earn their degrees, is one of many resources offered by the University to help older students succeed. Pictured: Steven Murphy, standing middle, Project Rebound student and participant, Desiree McFarland, seated right, Project Rebound student and participant, and Aaron Greene, seated left, Project Rebound director. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

At first, Christie Provost felt overwhelmed and isolated on Sacramento State’s sprawling campus. She was in her late 40s, decades older than most of her classmates. Unsure whether she belonged, she was reluctant to raise her hand in class, or meet with a professor during office hours.

Now, in her second semester, Provost has gained her footing.

“It’s mostly exhilarating,” said Provost, who is studying Psychology. “I love being back in college.”

Christie Provost, who returned to college in her late 40s and is one of thousands of older students studying at Sacramento State, felt overwhelmed and out of place at first, but was able to find her footing during her second semester, saying "I love being back in college.” (Sacramento State/Bibiana Ortiz)

Provost is one of thousands of older students studying at Sacramento State, taking advantage of programs that support non-traditional scholars and, officials say, contributing to the campus environment in numerous and important ways.

More than 25% of Sac State students are 25 years old or older, and 11% are between the ages of 30 and 65.

Sac State has a strong interest in cultivating these students, said Anna Keck, interim director of Academic and Professional Programs in the College of Continuing Education. Many have held professional jobs, raised children, and had other valuable life experiences, she noted. They add value to class discussions and projects, and have clearly defined goals and a strong commitment to their studies.

With college enrollment numbers down across the country, older students are an increasingly important recruiting target.

“We need to actively and intentionally make sure that our university welcomes adult learners,” Keck said. “We need to knock down barriers, and make sure that they feel that they belong here.”

The College of Continuing Education develops programs specifically designed for older students and other non-traditional learners. One of them, HornetAttain!, helps working-age adults who left Sac State before earning their degrees come back and graduate.

Advisers who understand challenges such as balancing jobs, family, and education work with these students individually to help them arrange flexible class schedules and overcome obstacles such as adjusting to new technologies and learning environments, said Keck.

The overall message is that “coming back is easier than you think,” she said. And it can have a significant payoff: Obtaining a college degree can translate into higher income, better health care and benefits, and greater sense of pride.

For a lot of older students, however, returning to college “is intimidating because most of the messaging out there about college features teenagers,” Keck said.

“In traditional higher education imagery, you don’t see an older student with gray hair, or with a kid on their hip. So, they may feel shame or embarrassment about their situation. But the fact is that these students are not alone. They won’t be the only older student in their class or in their major, and they are doing something great for themselves and their families.”

Spouses, other relatives, and friends can play a key role in helping older students succeed, Keck added.

“Support from their personal social networks can increase their comfort level and make a big difference,” she said.

Some of that support comes in the form of regular lunch gatherings, which Sac State Gerontology Professor Catheryn Koss organizes for older students to meet one another and share their experiences. At a recent luncheon, students mingled with others who had recently returned to college after a long layoff or who were attending for the first time after putting off their dream of earning a degree.

“There are a lot of reasons why these students want to enroll in college, or come back,” said Keck. “A lot of it has to do with personal intrinsic motivation. It’s something they always wanted to do, or wanted to finish.”

Provost, 49, left community college more than two decades ago to focus on home schooling her children. In recent years, however, she said she had been thinking about returning to school, and last semester enrolled at Sac State.

“It was hard at first,” she said. She struggled with technology issues, and blanched when professors referred to students as “kids” and “young people.”

“I felt out of place,” said Provost. “But I decided that I don’t want to waste any more time, and I want to move forward. Overall, it’s been amazing.”

Some of her younger classmates have become friends, she added.

“I mostly can relate to them, without the competition I felt when I was younger,” Provost said. “I tend to ‘mom’ them a little bit.”

Steven Murphy, 56, who is studying Business, spent four years in federal prison before enrolling at Sac State. He now is part of the University’s Project Rebound program, which helps formerly incarcerated students earn their degrees.

“We need to actively and intentionally make sure that our university welcomes adult learners. We need to knock down barriers, and make sure that they feel that they belong here.” -- Anna Keck, interim director of Academic and Professional Programs in the College of Continuing Education

After his release from prison in 2015, Murphy attended community college in the Los Angeles area and worked office jobs, where he learned basic accounting. He came to Sac State in 2020, earned his bachelor’s degree in 2021, and now is pursuing a master’s.

“When I first got here, it was exciting, because I had finally made it to a university,” said Murphy.

He studied remotely for his first two years because of pandemic restrictions, and now is embracing his time in the classroom, interacting with younger students and professors in person.

“I’ve made friends along the way, but the younger students have different priorities in life,” said Murphy. “I have no interest in partying. I’ve just kept to my own path. It’s been great.”

Sacramento-area native Desiree McFarland, 39, said Sac State “has always been a hub for me.”

“I feel right at home in many ways,” said McFarland, who is majoring in Communication Studies.

McFarland, also a Project Rebound student, managed a large apartment complex in recent years but “I hit a glass ceiling because I didn’t have a degree,” she said.

“I want my children and the younger students here to see me walking the walk, going to college and getting a degree,” McFarland said. “No matter what age you are, you can still benefit from a college education.”

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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