Adults returning to or beginning college late life is a growing trend throughout the country. Juggling work, family and other commitments while attending college part time — often, one class at a time — requires dogged perseverance. They might get tired. They might get frustrated. They don’t quit.
Judi Kostos and Nick Pykus are two such people. So-called “nontraditional students,” they are among a select group of committed adults who are earning college degrees decades after graduating high school. Here are their stories:
MATH HOMEWORK AND A COLLEGE DEGREE
Seven years ago, Judi Kostos’ grandson, Robert, needed help with his fourth grade math homework. Kostos was stumped. She couldn’t do it. The increasingly complicated problems and “new” techniques for solving them were just too tough.
Kostos helps take care of her five grandchildren after school. A full-time stay-at-home mom and grandmother of five, she was frustrated she couldn’t help with math homework. Kostos knew this was only the first of many math challenges, so she enrolled at Cuyahoga Community College’s Western Campus in Parma.
Kostos was 50 when she started at Tri-C seven years ago. The Brook Park native’s first class was in medical technology because she wanted to better understand her aging parents’ medical treatments.
“The scariest part was taking the entrance test because it had been so long since I’d been in school,” Kostos admits. “I was nervous the first day, but the staff was so friendly. The students didn’t make me feel old. I made a lot of friends.”
BUSY LIVES, BIG COMMITMENT
Kostos, like most older college students, had a lot of responsibilities outside the classroom. She makes dinner for her mom, Ruth Marzec, every night. She continues to help care for her grandchildren — now six months to 15 years old — and she’s been married for 39 years to her husband, Kent.
Yet, Kostos made time for school. One class led to another.
“I went at night, and when my husband retired I went during the day. The students welcomed me just like I was another student,” she says. When she struggled with technology, they helped her figure it out.
Her professors seemed to like that she was older than the other students. She lived through events that her classmates were learning about from lectures. “I think the students learned from me, and I learned from them,” she says.
Kostos never intended to earn a degree. Each semester, she signed up for classes. She loved learning and meeting the other students and professors. She earned an associate degree in liberal arts in December with the loving support of her family cheering her on.
She intends to return to Tri-C this fall. This time, she’ll take criminal justice classes while her grandson, Robert — the same grandson whose math homework nudged her back to the classroom — takes criminal justice courses at Polaris Career Center in Middleburg Heights. Kostos says they’ll continue to learn, study and grow together.
Kostos hopes her late-in-life college experience is an inspiration to her grandchildren to attend college. She also encourages others who are thinking about enrolling in college to go ahead and try. “You take it one step at a time,” she says.
BACK IN COLLEGE — AGAIN
Until last year, college was a series of starts and stops for Nick Pykus.
He enrolled at the Kent State University Ashtabula campus after graduating high school in 1978, transferring to the main campus in 1979. During the spring of his senior year, his mother was hospitalized, and Pykus subsequently dropped out.
Pykus got a job as a phlebotomist at a local hospital. Because he had taken college courses and had laboratory experience, he began working in a medical lab. After a few years, he was drawn to computer systems work. Pykus became a senior IT analyst for University Hospitals, a position he still holds. Pykus married his wife, Jennifer. They had two children, now 21 and 13.
BUILDING A FUTURE
“Going back to college seemed like a distant dream,” Pykus, 56, recalls. “However, I still tried. About 10 years ago, I had an opportunity to complete my degree. Being loyal to Kent State University, I went back to Kent to complete my original goal. But, I found that juggling a full-time job, a family and driving to Kent for night courses became a challenge.”
Pykus, who lives in Cuyahoga Falls, spent his days working, raising a family and volunteering with the Boy Scouts. He continued taking occasional classes at Kent, but didn’t make progress on a degree. At the time, online courses were rare. The nighttime and weekend class commitments weren’t compatible with his busy life.
“Then about two years ago, I found that in order to advance my position at my place of employment, I would not only need a baccalaureate degree but would also need cutting-edge knowledge to contribute value to my position. And the competition for advancement is fierce,” he says.
Pykus learned about Kent’s Integrative Studies program through his adviser, Deanna Donaugh. The program helps students return to Kent to complete their degrees.
“I gave it another try,” Pykus says. “About 35 credit hours later, and through mostly online courses, I now qualify for graduation.”
Pykus is taking an online course this summer. He’ll graduate in August with a bachelor’s degree in integrative studies. His family will be looking proudly on.
“What was appealing about the program was not only that I had a chance to complete a goal, but that Deanna made the transition almost seamless as an adviser — helping me choose courses, leading me through registration processes and guiding me through to graduation,” he says.
“I was the oldest in class, and I kind of felt like I was going back to high school,” Pykus says. He hopes his experience will inspire his children to excel.
He plans to start on an MBA at Kent as soon as possible.
“It’s never too late. It’s fascinating what you can learn when you go back to school.”