Plan B Adult Students Conquer Obstacles With Return to Classroom

by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/editor-One College Avenue.

Editor’s Note

We regret to report that Deborah A. Fassman died unexpectedly Nov. 10, 2010, at her home in Nescopeck. She was 49. Fassman was born Nov. 10, 1961, in Connecticut. She earned an associate degree in heavy construction equipment technology: operator emphasis from Penn College in 2009 and was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in technology management. She operated the family farm, Workhorse Farms, with her children and was an aggregate technician for Glenn O. Hawbaker Inc. She is survived by her children Courtney, who received an associate degree in ornamental horticulture: retail management emphasis in December and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration: human resources management concentration, and Noah, who is in high school .

Deborah A. Fassman had a busy life, raising two children and helping her husband run their 113-acre grass-fed beef farm near Nescopeck. She’d already gone through college and had a good job working in the nuclear industry, which she left to rear her children.

Deborah A. Fassman operates heavy equipment on her grass-fed beef farm. Her work on the farm inspired her to pursue a degree in heavy construction equipment: operator emphasis. Photo by Cindy D. MeixelBut when her husband died in 2005, Fassman had to make a change. “That’s when I realized I would have to support myself and my children. I could no longer just take care of the house and the farm,” she said.

Her husband owned construction equipment, and he taught Fassman how to use it on the farm.

“There was still a project going on at home when he died,” Fassman said. “So I hopped on and finished the project.”

Perhaps it was the fresh air, perhaps the solitude of the cab, but it was on a construction vehicle that “Plan B” crystallized.

Fassman – who graduated at the top of her class in 2009 – is an aggregate technician at a Glenn O. Hawbaker Inc. quarry in Hazleton, where she tests various stone materials to ensure they are consistent and meet PennDOT specifications. Photo by Cindy D. Meixel“All the jobs I had before were inside; then all those years working on the farm outdoors, I enjoyed it,” she said. “You put me on a bulldozer, and I could be on it 24 hours a day. I think I just love to do it. So I thought: What jobs are out there that I could do?”

When she learned that Penn College offers degrees in heavy construction equipment, she talked to some acquaintances who had attended the college and researched the college’s website.

“It gave me a lot of information that – before I even came to campus – I thought, ‘Well, that’s the place to go.’”

"The price I pay for my education isn’t just my money. ... You've got a lot more invested when you get older."

In Fall 2007, she enrolled full time in heavy construction equipment: operator emphasis. Despite that her home is more than an hour away from main campus. And that her children, Noah, who was in middle school, and Courtney, who was in high school, would also be more than an hour away. Despite that she was 45 and it had been almost 20 years since she had left her last job and even longer since she had taken a college course. And despite that her schedule was already full.

The anxiety threatened to hold her back.

“I was afraid to come. … I didn’t know if I could do it,” she remembers. She took her fears to Mary Sullivan, dean of natural resources management.

“She came in as an adult student with the fears that many returning students face: Did I forget everything I learned in high school? How can I compete with these young kids? What if I’m the oldest person in my class? What if I’m older than my teachers?” Sullivan said. “In her case, she also had the ‘Is this the field for a woman?’ question.

“I told her she had already gotten through the hardest part of her life and that it had prepared her for whatever obstacles and problems she might face as a student.”


Adults over the age of 25 were 20 percent of the Penn College student body in Fall 2009.

Counselor Kathryn A. Lehman echoed Sullivan’s perspective regarding some of the fears many adult students have about rusty study skills and competing with 18-year-olds.

“And they obviously are very worried about time management – juggling the different responsibilities,” Lehman said. “But most – whatever lackings they might have – make it up with focus and discipline. The stakes are much higher for them. … They are mindful of the fact that they need to get done as quickly as possible and do the best that they can.”

Victor J. Swanger, who graduated in May at age 60, shared classes with both returning and traditional-age students and made the same observation.

“Most of the older students seemed more dedicated to getting better grades, because they knew they had to return to the job market to support their families and pay their mortgages,” he said. “I still have a daughter in high school.”

Swanger and Fassman proved their determination. Both posted stellar grades, and Fassman earned two graduation awards when she received her associate degree in May 2009. Two months before her graduation, she was hired by a small construction company, adding a full-time job to preparing for finals and managing her family and farm. She continues to juggle a full-time job – as an aggregate technician at Glenn O. Hawbaker Inc.’s quarry in Hazleton – with family and farm responsibilities while continuing as a part-time distance learning student in Penn College’s technology management bachelor-degree major.

“The price I pay for my education isn’t just my money,” she said. It’s also time away from the rest of her duties. “You’ve got a lot more invested when you get older. You’re more focused on where you want to go.”

Life after the Army

Jamie L. Augustine, 33, who enrolled in business administration: small business and entrepreneurship concentration, is equally focused on her education – more, she says, than she was at 18. An Army veteran, she, too, became a single mother without warning when her husband passed away in 2008.

'I am just proud to be here, and to be in school achieving something that I thought I may never be able to accomplish as a single mom and a widow' said Augustine, a student majoring in business administration: small business and entrepreneurship concentration. Photo by Cindy D. MeixelShe knew when she graduated from Williamsport Area High School in 1995 that her ultimate goal was to earn a degree. But she also knew she was not prepared to commit the attention college would require.

“I wanted to be free and see the world,” she said.

She put her college plans on hold and joined the military.

"I just keep looking toward the future with a positive outlook and deal with my challenges as they come to me."

During her 10-year Army career, Augustine lived in two foreign countries and was a guard for three years at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. She also met her late husband, with whom she has a 5-yearold daughter and 2-year-old son.

Through it all, college remained a priority. When she left the Army, she began working toward an associate degree through an online institution.

When her husband died, Augustine decided to return to Williamsport. She completed her online associate degree in December 2008 and enrolled full time at Penn College in Fall 2009.

“When the Post-9/11 GI Bill came out, I decided I would be silly if I did not take up this opportunity to go back to college,” she said. “Penn College had the degree I was interested in, and they accepted the GI Bill. So, it was a given.” It was also the alma mater of her brother, sister-in-law and mother – also a nontraditional student who enrolled when Augustine was a high school freshman.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides funds toward tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance, and a stipend toward books and supplies.

Despite the trials of becoming a widow at the age of 31, Jamie L. Augustine retains her positive attitude, shown off during a new pastime – triathlons.  Photos courtesy of Jeanette Lopez.The benefit allows Augustine to focus on her children and her schoolwork without adding another job to the mix. Her day begins early, getting her children ready and dropping them off at day care, spending most of the day in classes, squeezing in some time to study and complete errands before picking them up, then finishing her homework after the children go to sleep.

While juggling her roles as a full-time student and a single mother of preschoolers is tiring, she has not – through all her experiences – abandoned the positive attitude with which she faces each day. She even added a new activity: competing in 5Ks and sprint-length triathlons, and she was nominated as the marketing director for Students in Free Enterprise for 2010-11.

Augustine balances schooling with caring for her children Calistra, 5, and Caleb, 2. “They make me smile and they keep me grounded. I live vicariously through them,” she said. Photo courtesy of Thomas Mahoney“I approach my long list of responsibilities as a mission,” Augustine said. “I am very mission-oriented. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with managing my time. But I lay it all out on the table and set my priorities straight and get the mission accomplished.”

Fassman, too, said her success is the result of time management, self-discipline and determination – and the support of her teenage children.

“Since their father died, my kids have accepted a lot of responsibilities,” Fassman said. “If it wasn’t for what they’re willing to do with helping out at home, around the farm and helping each other, I definitely wouldn’t have made it where I am today.”

Picking up the Pieces

Lehman said many returning students – like Fassman and Augustine – enroll following a crisis.

Swanger returned to the classroom when Springs Window Fashions moved many of its jobs from Montgomery to Mexico and cut many others. Photo by Larry Kauffman“You don’t retrain as an adult and take it as a whim or do it lightly,” she said. “It really throws a big monkey wrench into your life. So there has to be a compelling reason.”

For some, it is the end of a marriage; for others, it is the loss of a job they loved – due to the economy or physical problems that do not allow them to continue to do their work. Others retire from the military or another field and want to begin a second career.

Swanger had foregone the opportunity once to return to school. Trained during his four years in the Air Force as a data-processing machine operator and computer operator, he was unable to find a good job related to his military training when he returned to Pennsylvania in 1972, when computers were not widely used in business. Instead, he went to work for International Paper Co. in Lewisburg, where he remained for 30 years, until the plant closed in 2002, and operations moved to South Carolina and Mexico.

The displaced International employees eventually became eligible for Trade Adjustment Assistance, a government program that provides training and other benefits for individuals separated from their jobs due to foreign trade. But by that time, Swanger was working at Springs Window Fashions in Montgomery and did not feel it would be worth the financial burden to leave and go to school.

“This was a mistake, but I had no way of knowing what would happen to the economy and that I would have my job eliminated,” Swanger said.

Like International Paper, Springs moved many positions to Mexico and cut many others.

“I decided to take advantage of TRA (Trade Readjustment Allowance) and find a … school to improve my chances for re-employment,” he said.

"It was a challenge to go back to school after over 40 years."

He had received informal training in electrical jobs from his father and from doing his own electrical work. He looked at schools that offered electrical courses and ultimately chose Penn College’s applied technical studies: electrical trades emphasis.

“For me, it was a challenge to go back to school after over 40 years,” he said. He was pleasantly surprised to pass the college’s placement tests and not require any remediation before entering his required math and English courses, but he was taken out of his “comfort zone” in other ways.

“The classes were different, with computers and (graphing) calculators being used,” he said. “I had used neither in high school. I was older than my instructors, and most of the students were in their 20s and had better computer skills than I had acquired on the job.

“(But) most of the instructors were helpful and understanding of the nontraditional students, and the Tutoring Center was helpful with calculator use.”

Lehman said the added academic support helps make Penn College attractive to returning students.

“We have more support services per student than a lot of other colleges,” she said. Those include academic support services such as free tutoring, disability services, counseling and career services, and a veterans affairs coordinator.

At 60, Victor J. Swanger earned a certificate in electrical trades, several decades after his Air Force training as a computer operator. Inset, Swanger receives an Airman of the Quarter award. Photo by Jennifer A. Cline, inset courtesy of Victor J. SwangerAlso important, Lehman said, is the open-enrollment policy, which makes applying to Penn College user-friendly for adult students, and the availability of one and two-year programs that present a clear pathway to employment or continuing education.

Fassman, like Swanger, was initially intimidated by the new technology, but found herself embracing the new study tools.

“Once you grasp the technology, college is easier this time around,” she said.

She also found that it didn’t take long to fit in with her younger, mostly male, classmates.

Although she was initially the last picked when students chose lab partners, that changed as soon as students saw that she and her partner earned the best grades.

“Deb became a role model for the younger students,” Sullivan said. “They used her as a resource and tutor.”

Sullivan recalls explaining to Fassman, when she was unsure of herself, that “adult students are a ‘gift from God’ in the classroom.”

“They are motivated, engaged and challenge faculty members,” she said. “They bring a wealth of practical life experience in and have a maturity and wisdom that adds so much to classroom discussions.”

Augustine agrees that she is more likely to succeed as a student now than when she graduated from high school.

“My outlook on life has definitely changed since I was 18. Accomplishing responsibilities took on a different meaning as soon as I became a soldier. … I am a whole different person nowadays. I personally like myself a lot better nowadays! Age 18 was a very long time ago,” she said.

All three of these adult students – while taking momentous steps to return to the classroom and excel – acknowledge that their tests are not over.

“I had an overall GPA of 3.84,” said Swanger, who could be looking forward to retirement. “I now face the challenge of getting back into the job market with many younger people and very few jobs available. I know that I must work beyond the normal retirement age to recover from economic losses in pay and retirement funds.”

Fassman – once so unsure about returning to school – plans to continue earning nothing less than straight A’s as she completes her bachelor’s degree and goes on to pursue a master’s and a doctorate in education.

Augustine has two years of study remaining to earn her bachelor’s degree and hopes, eventually, to use it to open her own small business.

“I would not change a thing that I have gone through, and I would never go back to change my choices in life,” she said. “I just keep looking toward the future with a positive outlook and deal with my challenges as they come to me.”


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