Need diploma? Time, colleges on your side

Thursday, May 21, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The greeting card people apparently have never heard of Debbie Billings. I couldn't find a canned sentiment that seemed right for her, even though I spent a whole lunch hour pawing through the graduation section at my favorite shop.

Her undergraduate years were not steeped in alcohol: "No more parties. No more beer. No more blind dates to fear."

Hers is not a tale of adversity and struggle. She did not skate on the edge of GPA disaster. I laughed guiltily and discarded a picture of the pope saying, "You graduated? There is a God." In fact, she earned a 3.97 average from Northern Kentucky University and was singled out for honors at her graduation Saturday.

Her "real" life in Anderson Township was not on hold while she went to class: "The world awaits you." The world has always been there for Debbie Billings, and going to college was simply a joyful part of it. For nine years.

"Sometimes she went to school a little," explains her daughter, Sarah, "and sometimes she went a lot."

Debbie is 47 years old, what is known as a non-traditional student. While Debbie was studying at the Clermont branch of the University of Cincinnati and later at NKU, Sarah graduated from college. So did another daughter. A third daughter is halfway there.

Family leave

Sometimes Debbie took time out from class for her kids. "I was sickly," Sarah says. Sometimes she had a more educational offer. Her husband, Roger, is an author who teaches at NKU's Chase Law School. Research for his books has taken him to Russia, Australia, Belgium and Germany.

Often Debbie went along, enrolling the kids in local schools with a "correspondence strand at home." Education fascinates her. Well, maybe not education. It's learning she loves. She plans to teach.

Full of enthusiasm and advice, she laughs generously and easily looks half her age. I like her anyway. She is interesting and funny, but she is not unusual.

Lots of women are either going back to school or thinking about it. Between 35 percent and 40 percent of NKU's students are classified as non-traditional. The College of Mount St. Joseph's student population is about half "adult learners," over the age of 23. Of these, 78 percent are women.

Judi Heile, the Mount's assistant academic dean, knows what it takes to gather your resolve and venture onto a college campus after a hiatus. She dropped out of UC during the '60s and got her degree from the Mount two decades later.

She oversees programs for non-traditional students, including child care and tutoring. "We get a lot of women who need help with math." (Well, of course you do. Everybody knows that math was invented by people who hate us.)

Start now

The dean promises that the Mount's program helps students "find out how to be successful."

There's also money to be found. "You'd be surprised at the funding that's available," Debbie says.

Start now. Today. This minute. Meg Winchell, director of admissions at NKU, says financial aid takes four to six weeks.

"You will be afraid," Debbie says. "You will get lost. You will fail an occasional test. But you can do it. Experienced minds are an asset."

I like the sound of that. And I remember the older students I taught when I was on NKU's adjunct faculty a few years ago. They were hungry for knowledge, tough questioners who raised the bar for everybody -- teacher and students.

Hallmark should take a look at women like Debbie. I'll bet they could sell a lot of cards: "Congratulations, graduate. You were worth waiting for."

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at