As the year 2000 was approaching and people were fretting the Y2K bug, Mary Ellen and John Magee were catching a bug, too. That bug was to get a college degree. There was no cataclysmic episode when the New Year arrived but there was a life-changing event impending for this couple.
Finances and motivation prevented John and Mary Ellen from going off to college after graduating from Sacred Heart and Manuel in the early 60s. They both got jobs instead. After marrying, they brought up three sons who eventually graduated from Southport High School before going off to college. It was during that time they started to catch the bug.
“I was embarrassed when our kids were in college,” Mary Ellen said. She said they would attend events at their sons’ schools and people would ask where they had gone to college and they had to say they hadn’t gone to college.
Mary Ellen shared this with colleagues at the school where she was a teacher’s aide and one of them started giving her brochures and information about various schools. It wasn’t long before she told John, “I’m doing this.” He decided to join her, taking advantage of the tuition reimbursement program at his job with Chrysler.
At that time, most colleges and universities limited the number of life experience credits students could achieve to 30 credit hours. Martin University wasn’t like that. There was no ceiling on the number of credits a student could obtain through scores on Prior Learning Assessments.
The University had a program called “A Taste of College.” Prospective students had the opportunity to attend a class for an evening to experience college classes. They went. “I just felt something wrapped around me,” Mary Ellen said. “I felt this is where I’ve got to be.” Although Mary Ellen and John were two of the only white students in the class, the warm welcome won their hearts and they decided to pursue this endeavor at Martin. “I couldn’t wait to go back,” Mary Ellen said.
Under mentors, they took classes and a variety of Prior Learning Assessments. Their life experience garnered each of them about 48 credit hours. Those credits hours were free and gave them a significant jumpstart on their degrees. They appreciated the adult-learner-centered classes held in the evenings and on weekends and they felt comfortable with most peers being 40-somethings.
They also appreciated the teaching approach. “(The professors) believed as an adult, you could bring something to class,” John said as he talked about how assignments were discussed around a table.
John and Mary Ellen took many of the core classes together. “Everybody knew Mary and I were husband and wife,” John said. However, as they pursued different majors, John in Business Administration and Mary Ellen in English, their classes and schedules diverged. “We worked hard. We studied. We wrote papers and took tests. We did our homework,” John said.
Mary Ellen added, “We spent hours at the Borders up the street, drinking coffee and studying. The waitress there said she was going to start charging us rent. I needed to leave the house to study. Otherwise, I’d be dusting, doing laundry or something instead of studying.”
John said he learned to take advantage of his spare time, how to budget it very well to accomplish everything he needed to do.
Six hours per term was about the average course load for the couple. As adults, they had to deal with both the studies and the other commitments in life. It took them seven years to complete their studies.
“We graduated together on May 6, 2007. We both graduated summa cum laude (with honors). My best grade was an A and my worst grade was an A-. Mary Ellen had all As,” John said proudly. At the graduation ceremony, the couple was awarded the Academic Affairs Award, which is usually presented to the top academic student in a class. They were honored and pleased to achieve that as a couple.
Mary Ellen said, “We couldn’t have done it with children at home. We were very active with our sons.” Speaking of sons, they all encouraged and supported their parents in their educational endeavor. “They were all there when we graduated,” proud mother Mary Ellen added.
Mary Ellen said, “I was able to have experiences that I would never have been able to have otherwise. I even got to go on an archeological dig.”
“I didn’t do it to put a dollar in my pocket,” John said. “It was the personal satisfaction of accomplishing something. There is a fulfillment that comes from doing something I always wanted to do.” He added, “Then there’s the knowledge. I started at age 55 and I thought I knew it all. I got humbled really quickly. I learned what I didn’t know. It taught me so many things I didn’t know. I think I am a better person, a better friend to others not as blessed as I am.”
Mary Ellen said, “I wouldn’t trade what I got at Martin for anything. It opened my eyes to a lot of things and situations.”
The couple celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary this year and both these adult learners still have active careers. Mary Ellen is a Realtor® with Tucker and John is a computer technician at Anexix, Inc. But no matter where they are or what they are doing, chances are they will find a way to continue learning. There is no going back for them.
“I am eventually going to go back for my master’s degree,” Mary Ellen said with a grin. “I may be in my 70s and I may not finish it, but I’m going to do it.”
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