Going back to college after taking several years off can be difficult. Work demands, raising a family or finances can make it challenging. Many schools have programs to reach out to students who left before completing their degrees. At UNC Charlotte the program is called 49er Finish.
Through the program’s assistance, Regina Dudley-Mack returned to UNC Charlotte last year. She admits it’s not easy juggling her family, work and school responsibilities, but she is determined to graduate.
When she has classes, Dudley-Mack drives from Huntersville and arrives on campus just after 7:30 a.m. On this particular day, wearing black dress pants and a tan jacket, she rushed from the parking lot to get to class on time. Once inside, she sat on the front row and listened intently to her professor’s lecture. She asked and answered questions while taking meticulous notes. Some of her classmates, sat with no notebooks, looked bored, occasionally yawned and they were more casually dressed in shorts, t-shirts and flip flops.
“I look at my classmates and see where I was," Dudley-Mack said. “I remember being able to sleep and having a social life. A lot of them are very intelligent but I do get jealous that they don’t have to go to work,” she said laughing.
Dudley-Mack is 41 and works full time for a government contracting company. She dropped out of UNC Charlotte in 1998. She was married with a child at the time.
“I had a two year old but when I found myself on high-risk pregnancy with our second child, I had to stop,” she said.
Dudley-Mack is now a mother of four. Two years ago, she tried going back to UNC Charlotte but it didn’t work out.
“I was not prepared or didn’t have accurate knowledge of where I needed to go, what I needed to do, how much the finances would affect my budget,” she recalled.
In steps 49er Finish. The program reaches out to former UNC Charlotte undergraduates who left school with at least 90 credit hours. 49er Finish coordinator Jillian Stubbs says postcards are sent to seniors who have been out of school for at least a year and have a 2.0 or higher GPA.
“The program is a concierge approach,” Stubbs said. “We try to make it as easy as possible for them in returning. It’s about getting to know the student and what resources you need and I try to coordinate with a lot of different departments on campus to see what the requirements may be to complete the degree to streamline the process as much as possible. “
Stubbs sent postcards to Dudley-Mack. She kept them but didn’t respond because the time was not right. Dudley-Mack said that changed last year when she didn’t get a promotion because she did not have a degree. She tried to re-enroll on her own, but after becoming frustrated with the whole process, she made an appointment with Jillian Stubbs.
"I didn’t tell Jillian how big an emotional wreck I was and how close I was to saying that’s OK. But by the time she finished, I went and sat in my car and cried, God I thank you because I was so close to giving up again,” Dudley-Mack said. “When I finally got my student ID, I was so excited and I’ve been flashing that badge everywhere.”
Dudley-Mack took Stubbs’ advice and changed her major from education to business administration so she could get tuition reimbursement from her job. Stubbs also pointed her to online and evening courses that would fit into her work schedule.
In the 10 years that the program has been in existence, about 830 students have returned to UNC Charlotte through 49er Finish. Stubbs said their ages range from mid-20s to 60 something. 642 have graduated. One of them is 48-year-old Victoria Namishia.
"I would not, I know for sure, have graduated college had you not reached back out to me,” Nimisha told the UNC Board of Governors in giving them an update on the program at last month’s meeting. “You guys picked me up and you brought me home and you accepted me.”
Namishia said she left UNC Charlotte in 1998 because raising her son and working 50 hours at a bank became overwhelming. She didn’t always appreciate receiving those 49er Finish postcards. So one day, she called the office. She said she didn’t want to receive the postcards anymore because they made her feel like a failure. But while on the phone, a program counselor went over her credits and discovered she only needed eight to graduate.
"I said wait, I was out of school for 14 years and I only need eight classes to complete my bachelors? Where do I sign up?” she said.
Namishia graduated within a year. It was good timing because she was laid off just before graduation. With degree in hand, she landed a job with a financial consulting firm.
College had changed a lot by the time Namishia and Dudley went back to school, for example technology in classrooms and libraries. Sitting in a computer lab, Dudley said the 49er Finish program helps her navigate those challenges.
“So you’re not lost when you get here, you’re not just roaming trying to free Willy all by yourself. You have help. The doors are open after hours. They have all kinds of opportunities for you. It’s like a nanny for college,” Dudley-Mack said with a laugh.
Dudley-Mack needs 30 hours to graduate. As she packed up her minivan to head to work about an hour away in Ballantyne, she said she hopes to have her degree within a year-and-a-half and a better chance when another promotion comes up.