The Adult Learner

Thoughts on the adult learner, and how to balance life… at work… at home… while continuing your education as a nontraditional student.

The Adult Learner

Life is a Team Sport

“…many hands and hearts and minds generally contribute to anyone’s notable achievements. We share, to a large extent, one another’s fate.  We help create those circumstances which favor or challenge us in meeting our objectives and realizing our dreams.” ~Walt Disney

I want to introduce you to an incredible friend of mine.  Her name is Denise.  She would be the first to admit, that she was NOT a runner.  She laughed that she could barely run half a block without getting winded.  Denise, her husband Hansen and another couple decided to run a marathon.  Once they registered and paid the money, there was no turning back.  The goal was set.  Now they needed a plan.  They purchased the Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer which helped them lay out their training regimen.  With a plan in place, all they needed was determination and commitment to the plan.  They started in June.  The marathon was in October.  There were many days when one of the fearsome four didn’t feel like running or training.  They lifted each other up with encouragement and support.  I am happy to report they all ran in the Chicago marathon, and finished with respectable times.  The entire experience and the feeling of achievement were unbelievable!

Pursuing your education is a lot like running a marathon.  Although the activities are more mental than physical, the process is the same.  You set a goal for yourself – to complete your degree or pursue advanced education.  You laid out a plan that seemed to make sense.  Now comes the hard part – life happens – especially in adult education.  You have obligations to yourself, your family, your work, your church, your community and your friends.  Your best laid plans now seem obscure.  Don’t give up on your goal.  This is where the commitment and determination are paramount.  This is when you reach out to others who are in a similar situation for help, support and encouragement – your fellow students.  Just as Denise discovered, the training was tough – something she had never experienced before.  Through faith, determination and perseverance she stayed committed to the goal.  As she discovered, the end result was well worth the effort.  Your education will change your life.

Listen to Their Stories: Reaching the Hearts of Adult Learners

One of the core issues in adult education is the extent to which traditional students differ from adult students. It is a marketing issue in that we have to identify and understand the differences in order to package our message in a meaningful and relevant way. It is more complex than buying ads on the right radio stations or getting them in strategically targeted publications. We have to understand the subtle nuances that characterize both traditional and adult learners in order to reach their emotions or, perhaps more descriptive, their hearts. The extent to which traditional students differ from adult students is also a student services issue in that both groups represent different sets of life circumstances that we must understand in order to meet the needs of our students while they are with us and, ultimately, retain them through to graduation.

Here’s a proposed axiom that, for me anyway, describes the core difference between traditional students and adults and that may provide a framework that could drive our marketing and student services activities: Traditional students function in a “present” that is interpreted by the future; adult students function in a “present” that is interpreted by the past. As an adult education professional, here’s how this reality might inform what we do in reaching and retaining adult students:

·         Realizing that the past informs adults’ decisions to return to (and stay in) college, those who work in the admission and student services functions must listen to our students’ stories. For adult learners, these stories usually center on a crisis such as divorce, loss of a job, being passed over for a promotion, or some other type of loss in their lives. By taking the time to encourage discussion of the things that drive our students to us, we will reach their hearts and position ourselves to affect their lives.

·         Classroom experiences should be designed as safe places to discuss our student’s stories. At Christian institutions such as Belhaven, this can be done during a period of biblical reflection and prayer. As is true in our admission and student services processes, this type of discussion should be proactively encouraged by the instructor – realizing that this type of openness can set the stage for more productive curricular discussion later in the class. In addition, typical adult life circumstances could be intentionally woven into a lesson plan – discussing the effect of a personal crisis (divorce, for example) on one’s ability to lead in the workplace.

Ultimately, by making prospective or current students’ “stories” a priority in our discussions with them, they will perceive an environment that is emotionally safe and attractive, and we will have reached the seat of every adult’s decision making processes – the heart.

The Overcomer

Adults who return to school overcome any number of obstacles. Work, family, church, health, military and community service–all put demands on our limited time. I have come to believe that the single greatest thing that an adult learner MUST possess is determination. Many struggle with one academic skill or another, and many have to tackle new technology, but I have seen determined individuals overcome these things. The one ingredient that I have never seen someone lack and still succeed is DETERMINATION. The adult learner must set his or her face like flint and push ahead, regardless of what life brings.

Meet Carol Danley, Belhaven Memphis Class of 2014. Carol received the Belhaven Social Services Award. This award goes “to the student who best models Jesus’ ministry to those whom society often neglects.” Carol’s story is much more than one of academic excellence and community service. Like many of our students, Carol had to overcome health issues, death in the family, and any number of other challenges. Her academic testimony is amazing.

Carol has enjoyed a 35 year career in Social Services. Yet she was still compelled to come to Belhaven to complete her degree. Most of us, after accomplishing so much, would be tempted to brag just a little. Not Carol! In her words: “Belhaven presented me with a unique opportunity to fulfill a forty-five year dream.  I sat in faith before God daily. The profound support I received from my family and friends, the wise counseling and consideration of my professors and staff, will forever be embedded in my heart. To this day personal dreams have been fulfilled.  Success is not mine.  It belongs to God.  He kept me through it all.”

Amen, Carol. We know that Christ calls His people to be Overcomers, just as He overcame the world. And we know that we overcome by the Blood of the Lamb and the Word of our testimony, that Christ is indeed the Victor. One that day, we will cast our crowns at His feet, for He is the One who did it all.

Carol’s story is amazing, and is a testimony that, with God’s help, we can accomplish all He calls us to do. Look Carol up and get her story–it is inspiring. She completed her degree while also serving her church and community, and all while overcoming any number of health and family issues. She is living proof of what faith, determination, and a lot of hard work will do.
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Carol Danley receiving the Belhaven Social Services Award from Dr. Paul Criss, Dean  of Belhaven Memphis & Desoto

 

Excellence is a Prevailing Attitude

“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” ~ Colin Powell

During my career, I had the pleasure and privilege of working for Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL.  If you have experienced the Disney product by visiting the many theme parks, taking a cruise, buying merchandise or going to the movies, you have experienced the “excellence.” At Disney, excellence is truly a prevailing attitude from the front line Cast Members to the executive suite.  Everybody gets it.  The excellence doesn’t happen by chance, it happens by setting high expectations and following through with every detail.

So you may be thinking, nice story, but what has that got to do with me?  As an adult learner you made the choice to pursue your education.  You are making an investment in yourself.  At times, it may be tough balancing your family, work, community involvement and school obligations. I encourage you to “choose excellence” by setting high expectations for yourself.  Follow through by developing habits in the “little matters.”  Examples of this include developing good study habits; assessing and revising how you manage your time; asking for help/guidance; and developing a support network. Excellence is not achieved by chance.  It is a choice.  I challenge you to “choose excellence” for your educational journey and develop the habits to achieve excellence.  I guarantee it will be worth it.

Overcoming the Fear of the Unknown

Going back to school can be scary, especially if one has been out for a long time.  Thinking of how one is going to manage juggling family, work and school is enough responsibility to overwhelm anyone.  Not to mention the fear of subject matters such as Math and English. These subjects may not have been our favorite in high school.  So how do we overcome the fear of the unknown, the fear of failure, or the fear of math?

I am going to suggest a few things that may help you.  Consider these when you’re  contemplating the decision to take the plunge to complete your degree, make that career change or whatever dream you may be avoiding due to fear:

  • Having strong self-esteem is essential to being able to accomplish what you want to achieve.  If one lacks self-assurance, it will be nearly impossible to accomplish one’s goals.  Your belief in yourself, in addition to your faith in Christ of course, is going to be what gets you through  adversity.  This is also known as determination and will.  When the going gets tough, will you fight or will you fold?  “A man is as he thinks” Proverbs 23:7– so make sure you are constantly positively affirming yourself.  Tell yourself that you are smart enough, you are strong enough, and that you will accomplish whatever it is you want to accomplish.
  •  Having a strong support system is also vital to your success.  Rid yourself of the negative naysayers and the people that may hold you back from accomplishing your dreams and goals.  Surround yourself with cheerleaders and like-minded people. If you do not know any people like that, there are plenty of groups you can join to meet some.  Usually church is a good place to start.  
  • Lastly, make it a goal every day to do something that you will thank yourself for in the future.  Notating and completing short term and long term goals help us to gain momentum by giving us a sense of accomplishment.  Have a plan because when we do not, we can usually plan to fail.

Stewardship

Those of us in adult higher education know, for the most part, why adults decide to return to college. We hear the reasons several times a day, and we repeat them as we engage prospective students in dialogue about returning to college. Adults are typically looking to get a better job, set themselves up for a promotion, make more money, be an example to their kids, and finish what they started. There’s nothing wrong with this list. These are all noble reasons for continuing one’s education. However, as someone who attempts to incorporate a biblical worldview into his thinking, I would like to make an addition to the list. Adults should pursue a college education because God requires that we be stewards of what he has given us. Let me explain.

In Genesis 1:28, God tells his human creation that they are to have dominion over all that he has created. This was to include the physical environment and, as it developed over time, the social-cultural environment. God expects us to be stewards or caretakers over all of his creation and, as a result of the fall, to partner with him in its restoration. We cannot be effective stewards of God’s creation unless we are constantly learning about it. This requires us to become lifelong learners. Our adult students at Belhaven learn about God’s physical creation in their biology classes. They not only learn to marvel at God’s awesome majesty as it’s revealed in creation; they learn ways to become more responsible stewards of what he has made. Our students learn about the socio-cultural environment in sociology and psychology classes, and that responsibilities in these areas involve, among other things, being our brother’s keeper. Adult students learn to be stewards of the business environment in their business and leadership classes as they learn the importance of engaging in “business by The Book.”

In a way, our typical list of reasons for adults returning to school are at best pragmatic, and if we’re not careful in how we present them, perhaps a bit self-centered. We need to balance them with biblical-centered reasons for life-long learning that are focused on stewardship. 

So, I have a proposal for those of us whose work is to make adult education attractive to prospective students. We should acknowledge that pragmatic reasons for returning to college are important. Better jobs, promotions, and increases in income are all important potential outcomes to prospective students who have current and future needs that can be met by earning their degrees. However, a biblical worldview requires us to go deeper and acknowledge that education is a tool that allows us to learn more about the creation that God requires us to steward. An undergraduate or graduate degree earned as a developing caretaker of God’s creation provides a pathway to effective participation in his kingdom work.

Emotional Intelligence and the Adult Student

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou

As a student as well as instructor, I am amazed that too often I find myself “covering material” rather than engaging! I will do what it takes to make sure that I can boast that I read the assignments, viewed the videos, wrote the papers, and prepared for class. However, how often am I really ENGAGING the classroom, the instructor, the student, the material?

My temperament is such that I engage emotionally. I am an extrovert and natural “people person.” As such, I am most comfortable when I can “feel” connected. I find that MANY other adult students are able to learn and grow when they connect in the classroom (either in person or virtual), and that those who fail are often the most disconnected.

So why do so many of us instructors focus on “covering material” rather than connecting with students and connecting students to the subject matter? Thoughts?

Why Wait?

In October 2013, the Lumina Foundation released a report on a national study of adult learners.  Their report examined expectations, attitudes and needs of adults learners considering going back to school.  One of the main findings reveals that adults desire to complete their degrees someday but are concerned about their ability to judge family, work and school at the same time.

For most adult learners, family and work must take priority over school.  Children need to eat.  Bills must be paid.  Suddenly, the phrase “I’ll take a semester off” turns into years.  One day, everything in life line up perfectly and one will be able go to back to school, right?  Life works out that way for some.  However, listen to the stories of graduates and learn about the many friends, family, and co-workers who provided encouragement, study groups, tutoring, babysitting, carpools, etc., to help them reach their goals.  It is the community the surrounds and supports an adult learner that makes the difference.

The idea of community support is not new to us.  It is how God intended for us to live: as the body of Christ.  Galatians 6:2 says “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.”  Why put off today what you can accomplish tomorrow with a little assistance?  Who needs your encouragement and support in order to achieve their goals?

Yay Daddy!

Last Friday evening, our Chattanooga-Dalton campus held its 2013 graduation ceremony. I had the privilege of sitting with our faculty – second row from the front. From that vantage point, I could see everything that was happening on the platform. However, it wasn’t so much what was happening on the platform that captured my attention; it was what I was hearing behind mebabies crying, a graduate sitting directly behind me “amening” the commencement speaker; occasional laughter; someone softly echoing the benediction as the service drew to a close – “the Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you, the Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.” So much energy, so much excitement! It was a wonderful moment.

The most thought provoking voice, however, didn’t originate from a graduate or a baby, but was from what seemed to be a young child – maybe five or six years old. As one of our graduates walked across the platform to receive his diploma, I heard a forceful “Yay Daddy!” A subdued laughter slowly began to make its way across our warm, cozy, venue. An adult college graduate who had worked hard for months balancing work, family, and school heard the words “Yay Daddy” from his child. In the world of adult education, no words could be more profound. Here’s why

·        The words “Yay Daddy” coming from an adult student’s child confirm that the hard work and sacrifice that goes into earning a college degree has been worth it. Someone who loves and looks up to the graduate has uttered the ultimate confirmation. 

·         The words “Yay Daddy” indicate that the child recognizes graduation as a major accomplishment in his parent’s life. He sees that his dad’s hard work is recognized and makes the connection between diligence, perseverance, and reward. These are vital connections for the child’s future success in school and in the workplace.

·         Finally, the words “Yay Daddy” mean that the child, more than likely, will be a college graduate himself. Research indicates that children of college graduates are more likely to be college graduates themselves. Our kids are watching. They see Mom or Dad writing a paper, reading a book, or preparing a presentation. Children see the value in education only to the extent that their parents model its value.

As the bagpiper led us out of the auditorium at the end of the service, I imagined the “Yay Daddy” child being held snuggly by his mother – maybe even asleep by now. What a fortunate little guy to have such a daddy.

Probably the most gratifying aspect of working in adult education is knowing that we work year round to create “Yay Daddy” moments at graduation. We look forward to next December! But this morning, we still find ourselves reliving Friday evening. To all of the class of 2013, the staff and faculty of Belhaven University offer a heartfelt “Yay Daddy” (and “Yay Mommy” as well).  

Education and Leadership Development

Are leaders born or made?

VOLUMES have been written over the past decade about situational leadership, transactional leadership, crisis leadership, transformational leadership, servant leadership, and just about every nuance of leadership that one can imagine. Entire careers have been made lecturing on the importance of leadership and selling the latest leadership development approach.

One thing that most of the literature seems to agree on: Leaders are both born AND made. My take is that they are born of necessity rather than just from the womb. They are also made in the crucible of business, ministry, opportunity, and crisis.

Why is leadership development important for executives? For starters, most professionals in any realm (sports, military, business, ministry, etc.) usually want to be the best that they can be. Professionals take NOTHING for granted, including their leadership style and ability. While some are born with great charisma and drive, they understand that past success is no guarantee of future success.   (Even Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks work daily with a quarterback coach to improve their skills!)

 Also, effective executives understand that their realm of influence is constantly changing.  Teams change, organizations change, rules change, economies change. The style or skill that worked well yesterday may be outdated today.

Finally, I believe that the best leaders look for ways to develop leadership skills among their team members. Whether it is encouraging subordinates to enroll in a professional MBA program, having them attend leadership education seminars, or by providing opportunities to lead projects in-house, the best executive leaders strive to build an energized, empowered team of professionals. They create an environment in which it is okay to make a mistake now and then as long as the mistake is made while trying to complete the organizational mission in an ethical way.