By Tracy Balzer
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Continuing the Legacy
Under the leadership of Dr. Richard Ellis, JBU's adult degree completion program has 18 years and 2,700+ graduates to its credit. Now under the direction of Dr. Dan Lambert, the Advance program continues its legacy of serving non-traditional students.
The typical JBU undergrad student may find it easy to grumble now and then about having too much to do. Homework, senior projects, student ministries, and the wide variety of campus activities and relationships make college life a challenge. And sleep time needs to fit in somewhere.
But there is an entire population of JBU undergrads that are not “typical.” These students still experience the rigor of study, homework and projects, but also have full-time jobs, commitments to volunteer and service organizations, family responsibilities that run the gamut of raising small children to caring for aging parents, church involvement, and friendships to maintain. They are JBU Advance students, adults who are often 10 or more years farther down the road of life than traditional students. They are adults with a great deal of determination who decide to finish their undergraduate degrees in the midst of their demanding lives.
Students Since 1993
JBU’s Advance adult degree completion program has been in operation since 1993. That first year saw five “cohorts” begin: two in Springdale, one in Fayetteville, one in Bentonville, and one at the Siloam Springs campus. Nearly 20 years later, 2,757 adult learners have earned their college degrees through the Advance program.
Dr. Richard Ellis was hired in 1993 to be the director of the then unnamed degree completion program, and has continued in that role until this year, when he handed the reins over to Dr. Dan Lambert.
“My vision was always to ‘export’ John Brown University to people who could not be a part of the campus experiences because of life circumstances,” he said. Under Dr. Ellis’s leadership, Advance facilities have expanded across the state to include centers in Fort Smith, Little Rock, and Rogers; classes are also taught on JBU’s main campus, the Walmart home offices in Bentonville, and locations as far flung as Harrison, Hot Springs and El Dorado. That means, says Dr. Ellis, that “over half the population of the state [is] within an hour’s drive of our facilities.” JBU’s reach has clearly extended beyond what the university’s founder may have ever dreamed.
Dr. Joe Walenciak, who teaches business for the Advance program, affirms the expanding scope that Advance has added to the university’s educational mission. As a designer of several courses in the program, and a consistent presence in Advance, he sees at least four ways that Advance has benefited the community at large and JBU as an institution. “First…it helped me to expand my paradigm about education. My world got much larger, and I began to learn that JBU’s mission could be seen in much larger ways, which was exciting. Second, it began to connect a lot of Northwest Arkansas working professionals to JBU in a variety of ways. Third, our venture into adult education eventually contributed to our graduate school. Fourth, it has produced resources for JBU. But,” Dr. Walenciak says, “the first three things are more important to me.”
Eager to Learn
One of the distinctives of JBU Advance students is their intense commitment to the academic process, and their determination to see their program through to the end. Dr. Kim Hadley, JBU’s vice president for finance and administration, taught Advance courses from 1996 to 2004, and then served as organizational management program director from 2004-2006, and professional studies director of faculty development and learning assessment for Advance in 2006-2007. She witnessed student determination and dedication first hand: “I once had a degree completion student donate a kidney to a co-worker and only missed one class meeting.”
Likewise, Dr. Walenciak reports having one woman in his class arrive a few minutes late because her husband had brain surgery a few hours earlier; and another woman of 60+ years who wanted to get her bachelor of science degree before she retired. Faculty and administrators alike say that these stories are not uncommon among Advance students, despite the fact that as adult learners, many are faced with some overwhelming obstacles.
Challenge of Adult Learning
Not only are adult learners stretched very thin because of jobs and family. The years between age 25 and 65 bring unique challenges. Divorce, raising teenagers, economic downturn, and aging parents are just a few of the crises that can enter adult life unannounced and threaten to derail the academic goals of adult learners. On the other hand, the experiences of adults can, as Dr. Hadley says, make some classroom material easier to learn. “For example,” she says, “it is easier to understand financial math if you have paid a mortgage.”
But what happens when critical illness strikes? Or a student is laid off from their job? One of the ways the traditional JBU experience is adapted in Advance is through the ministry of the Advance chaplain, who is available for prayer, counsel and encouragement when adult learners go through tough times. Steve McClain’s role as chaplain is to provide support through what he calls “a ministry of presence.” McClain can be found at the Rogers Center during evening Advance class sessions, with the goal of directly interacting with students “for a purpose….they know that I am here for them if and when they need prayer support or just someone to speak to about some issue that is interrupting their life or studies.”
As chaplain, McClain provides in-class devotions and group prayer once during each course students take in addition to sending out monthly devotions by e-mail to Advance students statewide. This connection has proven to be a valuable way of embodying JBU’s values of “Head, Heart and Hand,” as well as a way to help students experience community together.
“I had one student that lost almost everything her family owned in a fire,” McClain relates. “I was able to rally support and donations from the other Advance students and present her with household items and funds to help her family recover and get on with their lives. It was a joy to watch her finish her journey and graduate.” And because Advance is committed to maintaining the distinctives of Christian higher education, many students have come to faith in Christ through the program. “From a mission standpoint, it reaches individuals that we wouldn’t otherwise touch,” says Dr. Hadley.
Whether it’s a degree in organizational management or early childhood education, JBU Advance graduates walk across the stage with a degree that is respected throughout the country. Advance has even had a famous graduate or two. Janet Huckabee, former member of the JBU Board of Trustees and wife of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, is a proud Advance graduate. Dr. Ellis recalls doing her admissions interview.
“I explained to her the demands of the program and the fact that we are very strict on attendance. She would be subject to the same attendance requirements as anyone else.” After graduating from the program, Huckabee celebrated by inviting her faculty and classmates to a party at the Governor’s Mansion.
Lori Walker, director of admissions for the Advance program, sings the praises of its excellence and design. When asked why a student should consider Advance, her answer is clear: “Quality academics, convenient scheduling, and Christian worldview. Plus, you get to still spend time with your family and finish a degree in about a year and a half.”
Graduates of the Advance program confirm Lori’s assertion. Dr. Ellis relates yet another encounter with a graduate in Organizational Management, after running into him 10 years after the completion of his degree. “I asked him how things had gone since he graduated. He told me that getting his degree was the single most important decision he had made in his life. ‘So it opened doors for you?’ was my question. ‘Doors. Corridors. Highways. I would not be where I am today without this degree.’”