What a College Degree Means to Returning Adult Students


College graduation ceremonies are big events, meant to symbolize the size of the life achievement of getting a degree. The staging is full of pomp and symbolism, with participants wearing traditional academic gowns and walking across a stage in front of thousands of spectators, including friends and family.

As grads process across that space and accept a rolled up piece of paper, they’re coming out of a years-long process of study and personal growth, emerging as something new.

Gina Petersen was eligible to walk across the stage in May at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She has been working on her college degree, one class at a time, over the past seven years. And really for longer than that, because first started college more than twenty years ago but didn’t finish her degree.

But she had no intention of going.

“It’s how many other people who I’ve never met sitting in an event center with their friends,” she quipped. “I just need the degree. I just want to get this done.”

Petersen isn’t finishing a coming-of-age chapter of her life, as the graduation ceremony stages so elaborately. She’s 42. She’s been in a job she loves for many years.

For her, the biggest win will be updating her LinkedIn page, and feeling more secure in her career prospects. She doesn’t care about flowers and applause and ceremony; she cares about her professional credentials becoming real.

Maybe there should be a different kind of ceremony for returning students, because the degree often means something different.

It’s not so much about emerging from a cocoon of isolated study. It’s about being able to pick up knowledge while juggling school and family and work—and keep learning even as life happens.

This week’s podcast is the finale of our Second Acts podcast series, where we have been following the educational journeys of three returning adult students from different backgrounds and different parts of the country

All of them were close to finishing when we started interviewing them about six months ago. Do they all make it?

And what does a college degree mean to them at this point in their lives?

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.

This podcast series is supported by the Lumina Foundation.



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