Story by Mary Louise Speer
Drawing by Anthony Speer
Faith Foster wondered if she was doing the right thing when she started attending classes at Whatcom Community College in January 2012.
Foster said she was at a major transition point in her life after being laid off from a job with the City of Bellingham in 2009, ending a longtime relationship, and not finding work. She hadn’t attended college in 30 years.
“I was looking at being homeless and jobless and looking at ‘what do I do now?’,” Foster said. “I needed something positive, something to do every day.”
Whatcom’s Lifelong Learners Club offers students, such as Foster, a supportive and collaborative community where they can connect with others who are returning to or starting college later in life.
Foster is the president of the club that was founded in the spring of 2012. While all students are welcome to attend club events, advisor Amy Riedel said the club is geared toward people who are balancing careers, family life or being retired with school. Riedel is Whatcom’s Workforce career advisor and special projects coordinator.
The club is part of a larger Whatcom initiative to assist students who aren’t fresh out of high school to succeed. A common concern shared by these individuals, Riedel said, is “the fear of ‘can I do this at this point in life?’”
She said those decisions may be sparked by wanting to upgrade existing job skills or develop new abilities for a different profession. Meeting together allows club members to discuss their concerns and learn practical solutions from each other.
Riedel said many people in their middle and senior years have great work ethic. However, some individuals in those age ranges worry about using computers for tasks such as research and online courses, she said.
“I personally did my bachelor’s early in life and my master’s later. There are challenges around both,” Riedel said. “So I appreciate students who come later in life and embrace these new directions.”
Foster said she questioned the idea of going back to school later in life. She lives with multiple sclerosis which sometimes makes life more difficult strength-wise, she said. She discovered some Whatcom programs weren’t a good fit for her interests and she wanted to link up with people in her age group on campus.
Her son-in-law died unexpectedly after a heart attack in early 2012. “People just didn’t mind that I was a blubbery mess for the first few months here,” she said.
The club meetings help these students realize “they’re not alone,” Riedel said. “Their worries are often shared and their successes are often shared.”
Riedel said Whatcom demographics show that currently there are 367 students over the age of 40 who are enrolled at Whatcom and seeking degrees and certificates. In all, Whatcom has 486 total students over the age of 40 including students who are enrolled in non-degree programs.
Foster said she credits Riedel and other Whatcom faculty and staff with giving her strength to successfully keep going despite the challenges. She plans to transfer to Bastyr University, in Kenmore, Wash., to study for a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in acupuncture and Chinese herbs. She also works in Whatcom’s Career Center and serves as a student ambassador.
“Most of those people [Whatcom students] are in the Running Start and 20-somethings and then there’s me,” she said. “I think it’s good for people to see that age bracket.
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