By Katharine Webster
They’ve studied together and compared notes on professors. They’ve coached one another through Statistics and English Composition. They’ve traded tips on using Blackboard and Turnitin. They’ve listened to each other vent, motivated one another and celebrated good grades. And now they’re going to graduate together.
Roommates? Teammates? Best friends?
For at least five groups of graduates, the answer is “all of the above” and more. They’re family: parents and children, husband and wife, siblings, fiancés and cousins. And they can’t wait to watch one another walk across the stage at the Verizon Wireless Center in Manchester, New Hampshire, at commencement this May.
Most have never been to the Granite State, while some live here. Some share a home; others live apart, but talk or text every day. Some are in their 20s, while others returned to school after decades of working and raising children. For all of them, education is a family affair.
Here are some of their stories.
Cousins on Call
Cousins Lizzette Tarver, 39, and Melissa McKenzie, 41, will also watch each other walk May 9. Although McKenzie is completing her B.S. in Business Studies and Tarver earned an MBA, they’ve been each other’s support system throughout. They even took similar classes early in their programs.
“We have worked hard to get to this point,” McKenzie says. “We toughed out statistics together and a few other classes that we thought would never end, and when we’re frustrated, we can vent because each of us understands
what the other is feeling. It’s been a wonderful journey together, and I’m excited that we get to see each other cross that finish line.”
Tarver helped McKenzie by proofreading her papers. McKenzie helped Tarver with statistics and with her calm, practical attitude.
“She doesn’t stress out as much as I do, and I have definitely learned from her and from my work life that sometimes you don’t have to take things so seriously,” says Tarver, a senior marketing executive at Comcast in Atlanta.
Although they’re in different cities — McKenzie lives with her two daughters and twin 1-year-old granddaughters in Sanford, North Carolina, and works for the Chatham County Health Department as a restaurant food safety instructor — the cousins talk on the phone every day.
McKenzie says her SNHU advisors also helped keep her going because they know and care about her and her family.
“I’ve had a couple of surgeries since I’ve been in school: I got ‘Get Well’ cards in the mail. When my grandbabies were born, they sent me a card of congratulations,” she says. “I’m in a family space, and everybody is all about my well-being and my education.”
Now her 21-year-old daughter, Dijanai Baldwin, is joining the SNHU family. In January, she started work on an undergraduate degree in IT management.
“I wanted to get a degree so I can get a better job, and also for my kids,” Baldwin says.
Raymond Schnell and Tamara Graver, both 23, have been inseparable since they began dating in the 10th grade at Lehighton Area High School in Pennsylvania. That year, his parents went through a difficult divorce, so he moved in with Graver’s family.
They went to community college and earned their associate degrees together. They planned to complete their bachelor’s degrees at a nearby four-year college, but at the last minute they decided not to go because all the co-ed dorms were full and they couldn’t find off-campus housing together.
“We didn’t want to dorm separately,” Schnell says. “I didn’t want to not see her during the day and then not see her at night, either. We felt at that point in our lives, we wanted to be together.”
So they took a semester off and Graver began researching online schools. SNHU enabled them to complete their bachelor’s degrees together: hers in creative writing and his in accounting. They now have an apartment together and both work and go to school full-time. That can be stressful, because they’re facing finals and term papers at the same time. But each understands what the other is going through.
“When I come home from work as a preschool teacher, I’m tired, I’m beat. I just want to relax,” Graver says. “But he’ll say, ‘Come on, you really have to get your work done. Let’s do this together.’”
She tries to get all her homework done by Friday so they can relax together on the weekends.
“It’s better when we do our homework together, because then we have time to spend together,” she says.
Elaine Shirley, 48, of Londonderry, New Hampshire, will graduate with her 23-year-old stepdaughter, and her 23-year-old daughter won’t be far behind. They didn’t plan it that way. Shirley and her stepdaughter, Brianna, didn’t even start at SNHU. But all three ended up here and will graduate in 2015.
“I’m so excited to share something like this with them and show them it can be done, and not to give up,” Shirley says.
Shirley led the way. She had just a handful of community college credits when she began at SNHU in 2009. For years her college dreams had been on hold while she raised three children as a single mom. Then she remarried, and her husband, with two girls of his own, offered to support her through school. She worked temporary jobs while taking one class at a time at the university’s Salem, Nashua and Manchester centers — whichever was closest to her current job assignment — as well as online.
She had just completed her associate degree when her parents became seriously ill. Caught in an intergenerational sandwich, with five kids at home and two sick parents to care for, she almost dropped out of college. But with her advisor’s encouragement, she switched to all-online classes and managed to complete her B.S. in Business Administration with a minor in human resources. It paid off: Last summer, she landed a permanent HR job at an architectural firm.
“I’m loving it: a great company, nice people and finally something challenging, as opposed to something mind-melting,” she says.
Jennifer VanSchalkwyk, Shirley’s oldest daughter, didn’t feel ready for college right after high school. Then her mom found out about the SNHU Advantage Program and persuaded her to enroll. She completed two years at the Salem Center, spent a semester on campus in Manchester, and is completing her math degree online.
Meanwhile, Brianna had started college at a private, four-year school. She didn’t do well, so she tried the University of New Hampshire, which was closer to home and less expensive — but that didn’t work out, either. She finally realized that lectures didn’t fit her learning style, which is experiential and interactive. Her stepmom suggested SNHU’s online classes.
“I find I’m able to concentrate more when I’m by myself than when I’m in a classroom,” says Brianna, who is finishing her B.A. in General Studies. “I miss the college lifestyle and atmosphere, but my grades are so much better.”
She says it’s been a bit strange studying with her stepmom, but Shirley is a good role model — and dinner conversation is interesting, especially when Jennifer’s there, too.
“It’s been kind of weird, especially knowing we’re all going to graduate this year,” Brianna says. “Usually the kids are in school and parents are working and supporting the family.”
It’s been a big year for the whole family, with Shirley and all five children in college. Shirley’s 21-year-old daughter and stepdaughter will graduate this spring, too, from different out-of-state schools, while her son just finished his freshman year in Maine.
The Longest Journey
Melissa Prefontaine, 51, of Barre, Massachusetts, started work on her college degree nearly 25 years ago, when her daughter Alycia was in preschool. Alycia, 28, embarked on her own college odyssey a decade ago. Between them, they’ve spent 35 years in seven different schools. Now they will finally graduate together from SNHU — Prefontaine with her B.S. in Accounting and Alycia with a degree in advertising.
“I am so proud of her,” Prefontaine says of her daughter. “She’s put so much effort into school and overcome so much. There were times when she said, ‘Oh, I just can’t do this anymore.’”
But neither one is a quitter. Prefontaine spent six years earning her associate degree in business at a community college. A single mom at the time, she also had a full-time job.
Next she enrolled at Worcester State for a degree in nuclear medicine. But by then she was married, had a new baby at home and another on the way, and couldn’t handle the campus commute. She ran a home daycare for a decade instead. Once her three boys were all in school, she found a part-time job as a bookkeeper and earned another associate degree in accounting. But she couldn’t find an affordable, local four-year program to complete her degree.
Meanwhile, Alycia went off to college in Massachusetts.
“I tried three majors, but none of them really worked out for me,” Alycia says.
She eventually earned an associate degree in graphic design, but couldn’t find a job in her field. So she came to SNHU, taking night classes at the Manchester Center while working full time managing the kitchen at the 99 Restaurant & Pub.
Inspired by her daughter, Prefontaine checked out SNHU and enrolled in the online accounting program. Alycia finished her advertising degree online, as well.
Alycia says her mom’s support has been invaluable. Now they’ll walk across the stage together — a proud moment for both. Alycia may go on to law school, but first she’s going to take a break.
“I’m pretty burnt out from school for so long,” she says. “I’m going to take a breather for a bit, try to get a job and see where it takes me.”
All in the Family
A spirit of friendly competition animates the Gerry family of Chester, New Hampshire, with the younger generation leading the way to college. The oldest boy, Joshua, went first, to a state school in New Hampshire. He was followed by Jesse, now 24, who started at a state school in Maine.
Next their mom, Jane, 52, decided to pursue her bachelor’s degree in psychology at a for-profit, online university. Their father, Mark, 49, joined her six months later.
“We would have battles over who would get the best grades: Was it going to be the online school or the ground schools?” Mark says. “My wife and I usually won.”
After a year in Maine, Jesse, missing home and his girlfriend and worried about mounting debt, moved back home, got a part-time job in sales at T-Mobile, and took on-campus and online classes at a community college. T-Mobile worked around his class schedule, reimbursed his tuition and encouraged him to complete his degree in business management online at SNHU.
When his mom and dad became unhappy with their university, Jesse persuaded them to switch to SNHU for their senior years. His mom finished her degree first and has already embarked on her master’s in psychology with a concentration in child and adolescent development. Jesse had originally hoped to finish with her, but T-Mobile promoted him to full-time manager at a larger store, so he cut his course load. He and his father will finish this fall.
Mark, who hadn’t graduated from high school, had to complete his G.E.D. before starting college.
“I left my home early, at age 16½, and went to work. It wasn’t because I wasn’t smart enough — it’s because I was an independent-minded idiot!” he says.
The co-owner of a high-end tool sales and repair shop, he saw the benefits of getting a college degree when industry changes and the recession cut into his business. He figured he’d study information technology so he could start a new career, if necessary. Right now, he’s saving money for his business by managing the computer networks himself instead of paying someone else to do it.
At first Mark was nervous about going back to school, taking tests and writing papers. He’s found his family’s support invaluable. Even his 10-year-old daughter wants to help with his homework.
“Being able to talk to someone else really helps,” he says. “We all have that school mentality. You’re up on all the things going on, how to cite things, different ways of writing a paper, how to study, even proofreading each other’s papers. It ends up being a team thing — it’s almost like living in a dorm.”