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Unpaused: What returning to college taught me

By Andie Foley

For the Salisbury Post

Like many youth, when I fantasized about my life, the vision always followed a straight and narrow path: Get a degree. Get a job. Get married. Start a family. If there was a house with a white picket fence somewhere in there — well, what can I say? My young aspirations were as American as apple pie. Or so I thought.

The United States Census Bureau’s 2015 Current Population Survey revealed that of United States citizens aged 25 and older, only 42.3 percent have earned an associate’s degree or higher. This is not from lack of attempts. Some 58.9 percent of respondents reported some college experience or higher. Life, it seems, has a way of destining some of us to fall into this awkward middle ground.

My own story goes something like this: I enrolled in Catawba College immediately following high school, but health issues forced me to withdraw during my junior year. Before I knew it, I was married and in the workforce – the birth of my daughter in 2013 the last in a series of roadblocks keeping me from finishing my degree.

Things would take a second turn for me in July 2015 when I was laid off from my job at a nonprofit. While I continued to work from home doing freelance grant writing and graphic design, it didn’t take long to get a bit stir crazy.

This is how, at 28 years old with a husband who works on the road and a 3-year-old daughter, I have found myself back in the throes of Catawba’s day program. 2017 marks the start of my last and final semester towards my bachelor’s degree, some 10 years after I began my venture into higher education.

Much about the school hasn’t changed during my absence. Classroom sizes are still manageably small and intimate. I’ve seen many a familiar face in terms of faculty. What have changed are the students – and I mean this much more than in names and faces.

Perhaps my position as a returning student has given me a unique perspective. Perhaps the life experience that 10 years has afforded me has illuminated the nuances of college life I previously missed. Whatever the case may be, I see this feeling reflected in the eyes of my fellow nontraditional learning peers. We are awash with ever-connected young adults empowered with a desire to change the world, or maybe just make it.

Their lives are easier. They are connected to the world through the smartphone at their fingertips. They have constant access to news and insights regarding policies, politics, and human interests. They have a digital voice and a medium for whatever message they choose.

Their lives are harder. Careers and lives can be shattered with the push of a button. A share. A tweet. A snap.

And so, there are those of us among them – faculty and staff and “adult learners” — who have been tossed in the swells of reality. We listen to traditional students speak and we share those secret looks. We silently cross our fingers and hope they will be presented with ways that are unwinding and narrow. Or maybe we don’t. But we hope, whatever the case, that they will never lose that drive. Why?

Because life goes on after the pause.

Catawba College student Andie Foley is serving an internship at the Salisbury Post. 

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