Josephine Lorya, a Sudanese refugee who has lived most of her life in the U.S., sat at the end of a table to take the last final of her undergraduate career. She was 27 years old and eight months pregnant.
“I kind of felt out of place, but I just knew what my mission was,” Lorya said told Your Family magazine. “I didn’t really care what other people thought.”
Being the oldest student in the room is one of many obstacles adult students face when returning to college. But like Lorya, they persist and benefit from programs such as Adult Career and Special Student Services (ACSSS) and the UW Odyssey Project.
According to Your Family, UW–Madison has about 1,000 students 24 and older who return to school every year, part of a nationwide trend in students 25-plus pursuing postsecondary education. The group grew by 13% from 2005-2015.
Supporting adult students
Lorya graduated from Odyssey, offering a two-semester humanities class for adults with barriers to higher education. She went on to receive her master’s in social work at UW–Madison last year while pregnant with her fourth child. Three of her four children were born while she attended the university.
“In most of their classes, these adult students almost never see anyone that is remotely close to their age. I don’t know how they do it,” said Moira Kelley, senior counselor with ACSSS, providing support and resources for nontraditional students.
Lorya feels her sacrifices have paid off, especially as her children have watched her go through school and now place a high value on education. Her 12-year-old daughter is a straight-A student.
“Education is something that nobody can take away from you,” she said.
Beating the odds
Adult students enroll for many reasons, such as seeking a better life for their families, pursuing a different occupation, or finding financial security.
Keena Atkinson overcame numerous barriers to improve her life. She had her first child at age 16, lived with the child’s abusive father, and eventually ended up homeless. But she was encouraged to apply for Odyssey. She graduated from the program and then from UW–Madison in 2015 with a psychology degree.
“In most of my classes I was the only black person, and I was the oldest person,” said Atkinson, who beat the odds and went on to work at a large corporation after graduation.
For the last 15 years, Odyssey has helped more than 400 low-income adults get a jumpstart at earning college degrees. Thirty students each year earn six credits in English literature, for free. Onward Odyssey provides continuing support to graduates with childcare, motivation, funding for books, and help navigating college enrollment.
Atkinson has no regrets about her continuing education experience: “I would do it 10 times again. I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to go back to school.”
For more information on the Odyssey Project, contact director Emily Auerbach, 608-262-3733, or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on ACSSS, contact Moira Kelley, 608-263-7136, or email@example.com.