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Area students weigh in on why they're currently enrolled, the lowdown on debt and hopes for the future 

Eight degrees of differentiation

click to enlarge Thomas G. Dinwoodie
  • Thomas G. Dinwoodie

Name: Thomas G. Dinwoodie

School: Keller Graduate School of Management/Devry University

Physical or online classes: Usually both, currently online only

Degree/major you are pursuing: MBA, focus HR and personnel management

Other degrees you hold: Bachelor's in history

Current profession/employment status: Deployed to Kuwait with the Army

1. Why are you pursuing this degree now? I started two years ago when I lost my job, and decided to increase my education.

2. How do you hope this degree will help you in your future professional life? I'm hoping it will greatly improve my chances to be hired with a successful company.

3. What advice do you have for others who are considering pursuing higher education? Try and find a balance between what you like and what you see as increasing your marketability with potential future employers.

4. Do you have concerns about student loan debt? I'm actually extremely lucky in that I've been able to use the Post 9/11 GI Bill to pay for my education.

5. What's one unexpected thing you've encountered while pursuing higher education? I've actually had a lot of fun in some of my classes, and seen them as good sources of intelligent discussion and debate with my friends.

click to enlarge Sara Simon
  • Sara Simon

Name: Sara Simon

School: Pikes Peak Community College

Physical or online classes: Both

Degree/major you are pursuing: Communications

Other degrees you hold: None ... this is my first

Current profession/employment status: PR director at a nonprofit

1. Why are you pursuing this degree now? I was a foster kid and was always told I could not go to college and would never be able to get a degree. I went to work right out of high school and worked my way up to a management position and worked in the same industry for 20 years. Then I was laid off in 2008 during the crunch. I could not find another job in my field. I had too much experience but not enough college. I found work in nonprofit and love it. But in the back of my mind there is always that little voice that says "You don't have a degree. If things go sideways you are unemployable without a degree." So, in part, fear motivates me to work on my degree. But I also want to show all those naysayers from when I was a kid that they were wrong.

2. How do you hope this degree will help you in your future professional life? I hope that it keeps me in the job market as long as possible and helps me do my current job in new and more efficient ways.

3. What advice do you have for others who are considering pursuing higher education? Just do it. Don't let all the negative thoughts keep you from getting started. I was 41 when I finally went to college. I just had to stop telling myself I didn't have time or maybe later, or I can't afford it. I just started and refuse to stop.

4. Do you have concerns about student loan debt? I have not had to borrow much. I have mostly depended on scholarships. I dug for the money and found the small one-off scholarships that others either did not know about or they seemed too daunting to apply for, and applied. I applied for every single scholarship and bit of financial aid that could even possibly apply to me. I managed to get most of my school paid for so far.

5. What's one unexpected thing you've encountered while pursuing higher education? Being in my 40s in a class of people the same age as my sons is a bit odd and interesting. Another thing that is unexpected is that so few of the other students (even those non-traditionals like myself) don't read much. They don't know what's going on in the world. They know more about the Kardashians and who is playing in the big game than they do about the workings of our country and community.

click to enlarge Joseph McNeal
  • Joseph McNeal

Name: Joseph McNeal

School: UCCS

Physical or online classes: Both

Degree/major you are pursuing: MBA

Other degrees you hold: MS, BA, AAS and AA

Current profession/employment status: I am currently self-employed in Colorado Springs as a property manager and licensed Realtor. In order to continue helping people develop, I work part-time at UCCS as a combat fitness instructor, where I leverage my Army combatives experience, mixed-martial-arts background, fitness certifications and my MS in exercise science.

1. Why are you pursuing this degree now? I wanted to get out of the Army and go into business for myself. An MBA is fairly versatile in the workforce but it fits me well since I am a Realtor and property manager who is trying to develop my businesses. It is also a good supplement since I'm affiliated with Fit Life in Brent, Alabama, which is a gym business.

2. How do you hope this degree will help you in your future professional life? I am hoping it will give me the competitive edge in all my future business endeavors. I'm mainly interested in real estate and fitness opportunities. However, anything that helps people, the economy and the growth of our community is important to me and I'm seeing that an MBA will help.

3. What advice do you have for others who are considering pursuing higher education? I would advise them to look at the different options. There are many different programs out there and they have their pros and cons. Some programs work better than others depending on the learning environment the individual prefers as well as the workload. Graduate school can be very demanding when working a full-time job with a family. It's important to set your own goals and priorities in place before committing to a program. If your top priority is to graduate as soon as possible, there are programs out there that are very demanding but can be done in a year. It depends on how much the individual wants or can commit to higher education.

4. Do you have concerns about student loan debt? Fortunately, I joined the Army right out of high school at the age of 17. I took advantage of the tuition assistance throughout my military career. It paid for my AA, AAS, BA, and most of my MS. I used my GI Bill to pay for my MS and now my MBA. Luckily, I don't have any college debt. I was disconcerted when I started my executive master's program at the University of Denver to find out the tuition was beyond my benefits. So I downgraded to a graduate certificate in real estate and construction management. UCCS has tuition rates that my benefits cover. I have a certain number of months left on my GI Bill. It's going to be hard for me to finish this program without having to take on some college debt but we will see. Student loan debt hasn't been a big concern to me due to my situation.

5. What's one unexpected thing you've encountered while pursuing higher education? The cost of higher education is expensive. Tuition rates went up when I started graduate school in comparison to undergraduate rates. You also have to input more time to get accepted into graduate programs with taking exams, getting letters of recommendation, and sometimes interviews.

click to enlarge Melissa DeWitt
  • Melissa DeWitt

Name: Melissa DeWitt

School: University of Denver

Physical or online classes: Physical

Degree/major you are pursuing: Master's in library and information science

Other degrees you hold: Bachelor's in English lit

Current profession/employment status: Two part-time jobs

1. Why are you pursuing this degree now? I always knew that I wanted to go to grad school, but I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do when I graduated with my undergrad. I worked full-time for three years and felt that I wasn't giving back to the community in the way that I wanted to. I felt that librarianship would be a great, positive way for me to serve the public, encourage literacy, and do something that I'm passionate about. I'm still young, have no familial obligations, so why not now?

2. How do you hope this degree will help you in your future professional life? I hope to do something that is both personally fulfilling for me and a positive contribution to the community. I've already met tons of wonderful people in the profession, and I feel like I'm in a great place to work with local businesses to support our local community. I think I've finally found my passion and have a great career to look forward to.

3. What advice do you have for others who are considering pursuing higher education? If you know what you want to do, then go for it! I was very nervous about leaving my full-time job (with benefits!), moving, and starting something completely new. Everything has worked itself out though, and I'm so happy that I made this transition. You can only plan so much, but eventually, you just have to go for it. However, you do have to be realistic about your expectations for a job after graduation. It helps to research the job market in the industry you are looking at, ask for advice from professionals in the field, and weigh the pros and cons of pursuing a degree.

4. Do you have concerns about student loan debt? Absolutely. I feel like I may be in debt until I die. There's a strong chance I'll qualify for the public loan forgiveness program, but I'm still looking at 10 years of student loan debt. Will I ever be able to purchase a house? Own a new car? I have no idea. It's too early in the morning for me to keep thinking about this.

5. What's one unexpected thing you've encountered while pursuing higher education? Everyone is so nice, especially to students. If you tell someone you are a student, they immediately want to know what you're studying, who you're in contact with, and are willing to network for you. So many people want to provide their experiences and advice, and I'm just trying to take it all in.

click to enlarge Robert Gray
  • Robert Gray

Name: Robert Gray

School: UCCS

Physical or online classes: Both, but primarily physical

Degree/major you are pursuing: Bachelor's in innovation in business with a technology focus and a minor in visual arts (photography)

Other degrees you hold: AAS in electronics technology and an AAS in air and space operations

Current profession/employment status: Full-time electrical engineer and a forever artist at Gray Elements Photography

1. Why are you pursuing this degree? I have a few reasons honestly. I have been an engineer for the past six years and wanted a bachelor's degree to fall back on. Engineering and science degrees are extremely difficult to get when you can only take evening classes. The other reason is to improve on the artistic approach in my photography.

2. How do you hope this degree will help you in your future professional life? The goal is to improve in my art and learn how to market myself in a better fashion. All while learning the finer things in business.

3. What advice do you have for others who are considering pursuing higher education? Be prepared to be busy and remember to breathe, especially if you are pursuing it as an adult with full-time employment and kids.

4. Do you have concerns about student loan debt? I do to an extent. I am currently using my GI Bill to cover most of my expenses to keep student loans down to a minimum.

5. What's one unexpected thing you've encountered while pursuing higher education? Some classes that I perceived as blow-off/easy classes took the most time. Others have been the difficulty of getting evening classes.

click to enlarge Eileen Healy
  • Eileen Healy

Name: Eileen Healy

School: School of Public Administration, UCCS

Physical or online classes: Both

Degree/major you are pursuing: Master's of public administration

Other degrees you hold: Bachelor's in political science

Current profession/employment status: Staff at a local nonprofit

1. Why are you pursuing this degree now? Working in a small nonprofit, there isn't always a lot of growth opportunity, and I'm the kind of person who always needs to be learning and growing. My children are grown and gone, so I have the time.

2. How do you hope this degree will help you in your future professional life? My studies help me see the bigger picture of nonprofit organizations of all kinds, learn about best practices and get new ideas about what we're doing well, how we can improve, measure our impact and keep up with trends in the industry. It's almost overwhelming how much good information is out there — someone just has to take the time to look at it and apply it. My training will equip me to be a CEO or a COO of a nonprofit.

3. What advice do you have for others who are considering pursuing higher education? Get connected with an advisor or someone in the school, talk about your goals and look at all the options. Get involved in your school, take advantage of all the many opportunities and free or low-cost events, read up on what's available to you as a student!

4. Do you have concerns about student loan debt? I don't; I'm using college savings we put aside for years.

5. What's one unexpected thing you've encountered while pursuing higher education? I had no idea how much technology is embedded in classes now. Even the in-person classes I'm taking use a lot of technology to deliver materials, accept assignments, and connect students and professors. Our group projects are all conducted on the online interface, our grades are tracked there, and we have a message board to leave questions.

click to enlarge Stephen Marzulla
  • Stephen Marzulla

Name: Stephen Marzulla

School: UCCS

Physical or online classes: Mostly physical; I do one online class per semester to not miss much work

Degree/major you are pursuing: Double bachelor's in finance and accounting

Other degrees you hold: None

Current profession/employment status: Mortgage loan processing, full-time

1. Why are you pursuing this degree? I started going to college mainly because of the GI Bill to use the extra income and get any degree. I started out with electrical engineering, but didn't like coding as much, so decided to pursue finance. It turns out I love finance and accounting! The knowledge gained so far is very applicable to any business, making me more well-rounded professionally.

2. How do you hope this degree will help you in your future professional life? This degree is not a direct match for the mortgage and banking world, but has a ton of similarities that help. Looking at market and business analysis has helped in understanding banking, mortgages and everything in between. Knowing how to balance the books and analyze financial statements also means that I can find employment anywhere within any industry.

3. What advice do you have for others who are considering pursuing higher education? Save up money, and get as much free education in Khan Academy and the library in whatever you are interested in. College is getting more expensive every year. It helps so much when you come into classes with a working knowledge in the topics, boosting your GPA, and helping guide you into more specific questions and areas. Also apply to every freaking scholarship and grant you can find.

4. Do you have concerns about student loan debt? I was lucky with being able to use the GI Bill. Otherwise I would have gone a lot slower with pulling out as little debt as possible. I can see first-hand what happens when student loans come due every day and it is not pretty. My final semester I will have to pull out a minor loan or two, but I've set my finances to make them completely affordable and not too bad of an issue.

5. What's one unexpected thing you've encountered while pursuing higher education? How many doors being a student opens. I started as an intern at Ent Credit Union, and from that was able to propel myself into a very decent job in the focus I was going to school for. Once I started building connections at school in the different clubs and organizations I was interested in I was surprised on how involved I could be within the community. There are open doors everywhere if you look for it. Being a student may or may not help with being more involved, but it was the easiest way to find out about the groups.

click to enlarge Jennifer Williams
  • Jennifer Williams

Name: Jennifer Williams

School: UCCS

Physical or online classes: Physical

Degree/major you are pursuing: Bachelor's of science, majoring in physics

Other degrees you hold: None. This is my first college degree.

Current profession/employment status: I have a few odd jobs on campus and one off campus, including tutoring both math and science.

1. Why are you pursuing this degree now? Because I got laid off from my job back in 2013, and I had the opportunity to return to school with my severance and unemployment insurance. I have had a lifelong interest in science; I have wanted to learn as much as is possible about physics, and when the opportunity arose I took it. That was one of the best decisions that I have ever made.

2. How do you hope this degree will help you in your future professional life? I intend to obtain a graduate degree in physics. I hope that this degree will open doors for me, so that I can make a difference in this world during my career. My ultimate goal in life is to make some significant contribution to this world, and I intend to pursue that goal during and after my education.

3. What advice do you have for others who are considering pursuing higher education? Because I am a non-traditional student, my advice is intended for other students pursuing their education later in life. Returning to school can be overwhelming. You are expected to remember what you had learned in high school, and for some of the students whom I have tutored that was many years ago. My advice is to persevere. Always press on, no matter how hard it may seem. I promise you that it is worth it. Many of the things that you learned whenever you were last in school should come back to you, old skills will reawaken, and you can succeed. Have confidence in yourself, and your abilities. Remind yourself of your goals and pursue them. Your biggest hurdle is self-doubt. You can overcome it.

4. Do you have concerns about student loan debt? I am very concerned about student loan debt. I am worried that I might not be able to repay the loans that I have taken. Sadly, the recent recession has significantly reduced wages and salaries. I am concerned about not earning enough to repay the loans that I have taken. Tuition continues to rise, because students have no choice but to pay it. Student loan debt is a growing economic crisis in this country. Repaying student loans reduces the ability of many people to consume, which is depressing the economy. Sadly, it appears as though this growing crisis will continue to get worse, and I expect that student debt will cause another major economic downturn in the future.

5. What's one unexpected thing you've encountered while pursuing higher education? I think that the most unexpected thing about returning to college is how much I have enjoyed being in school again. I am happier now than I was when I was working, despite the lack of income, and workload of my classes. I would encourage people who are not happy in their jobs to consider returning to school. It is expensive and difficult, and many people might not be able to do it, but consider the option. If you can make it work, in my opinion, it's worth it.

  • Eight degrees of differentiation

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