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Engineering poses a challenge for returning older students. Community colleges lead the way in helping them cope.

As a kid, Dan Newkirk loved to build and design things. He helped his dad calculate how to change the pitch of the roof of their house. He was good at math and liked computers. But after graduating from high school, he just wasn’t ready for college, Newkirk says, so he got a job with Arizona’s department of transportation as a maintenance technician. Gradually, his responsibilities grew, and he started managing multimillion-dollar projects.

After 12 years, he left to start a new chapter in his life. He had been studying engineering parttime at Pima Community College in Tucson and decided to go fulltime and pursue his dream. “I want a job that excites me,” Newkirk says. “I want to do something cutting edge that hasn’t been done before.” In January, Newkirk will be a 34-year-old junior at the University of Arizona majoring in mechanical engineering. It won’t just be his age that sets him apart from most students there. He is married and has a newborn son, so he will juggle family life as well as lectures, labs, and homework.

Older students returning to college — often referred to as nontraditional students — face unique challenges, and so do the educators who try to help them succeed. These challenges are especially acute in the case of engineering, arguably one of the toughest, most ambitious degree programs out there.

The students need flexible schedules to accommodate their working lives and young families; affordable tuition, since many don’t have financial support from parents; high-quality faculty attuned to training future professionals; and advisers who can guide them through degree requirements and who know the needs of industry.


Community colleges in particular have found ways to accommodate the needs of nontraditional engineering students, who often find that these schools offer an ideal transition to a university degree program or graduate school.

Montgomery College, a community college in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, has about 900 students enrolled in its two-year engineering program, 10 percent of whom are over 30. Many work as technicians with companies along the I-270 technology corridor — sometimes called the “Silicon Valley of the East,” says Muhammed Kehnemouyi, chair of the department of physics, engineering, and geosciences at Montgomery’s Rockville campus.

Montgomery prepares students to transfer eventually to a four-year university. A full-time student can complete the program in two years, but a part-timer taking one or two courses at a time could take up to eight years to finish, says Donald Day, a retired engineering professor at Montgomery College who is now a student advisor.

And indeed, most older students study part time, taking their courses outside of normal working hours. “We offer the entire two-year program in the evening, parallel to the daytime offering,” Kehnemouyi says. A typical class would meet twice a week, with a 75-minute lecture followed by a three-hour lab. The fact that most of these students have already worked an eight-hour day before class indicates the strong motivation many nontraditional engineering students have.

Offering such a range of evening classes changes the makeup of the faculty, as well. “For us, it’s challenging because we hire a lot of adjunct, part-time faculty,” Kehnemouyi says. Luckily, Montgomery College can draw teachers from the scientists and engineers at nearby institutions like the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., or the many tech companies in the area. Full-time faculty teach some evening classes, but about 60 percent of the teaching staff is part time.

Some students’ employers pay for them to attend college or reimburse their tuition on a scale based on the grades they earn. But even if they have to pay their own way, the students find community colleges affordable. Sara Lynch, 31, who spent a year researching colleges before settling on Tucson’s Pima, paid the tuition on her own and didn’t need loans. “Tuition this semester was $500,” she says.

Like Newkirk, Lynch always had an interest in technology. Her mother was trained in civil engineering and her grandfather was a mechanical engineer, so she was familiar with the field. But she didn’t have a clear direction after graduating from high school, and it took some time in college and in the working world before she found her calling.

Lynch decided she wanted to work on renewable energy systems in the building industry. So after graduating from Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., with a degree in industrial technology, she moved to Arizona and got a job with an architect. “I started as a secretary but finagled my way to other positions,” Lynch says. The company recognized her potential but couldn’t offer her much in the way of advancement because “I just wasn’t qualified.” She realized she needed more credentials.

Lynch’s employer allowed her to work part time while she attended Pima. Because she already had a bachelor’s degree, she researched the prerequisite courses she would need to enter a graduate program in civil engineering, as well as those for becoming a certified professional engineer. After taking the classes she needed, she was accepted into a master’s degree program in civil engineering at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro.

But Lynch found that graduate schools weren’t used to working with nontraditional students. “The biggest challenge was putting it all together into this big plan,” she says.


If preparing for grad school is tough, so is the transition from a two-year college to a four-year university, according to Day. Universities generally do not schedule classes to accommodate part-time students or working parents with kids, he says. Plus, going to school full time often forces students to quit work and somehow pay tuition and fees that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. What’s more, “transfer students get methodically put last in line” for scholarships, Day says, even when they have superior grades.


Engineering departments at community colleges do their best to help ease that transition. The adjunct faculty at Pima work closely with professors at the University of Arizona to make sure their course content matches, says Alexander Shayevich, lead faculty member of Pima’s engineering department. This “requires effort,” he says, because it means working with up to 16 different university departments. Pima also works with universities to make sure its students’ credits can transfer.

At Montgomery College, virtually all the students eventually transfer to a four-year institution. Most head for the University of Maryland at College Park, but some have gone to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute or to Georgia Tech, where the engineering department has agreed to a seamless transfer process and has opened up scholarship money for transfers.

Like many couples, Newkirk and his wife took a tag-team approach: Newkirk worked while his wife pursued her degree in pharmacy at the University of Arizona. Then, when she began working, he started taking classes full time at Pima. He manages his time by treating school like a regular job; between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., he does school-related work, leaving evenings free to spend with his family.

Many older students can see a future return on their investment of time and money. If they are working as technicians, they can’t fail to notice that engineers in their company earn more than they do. An engineering degree also opens up additional career opportunities. When high-paying information technology jobs dried up following the dot-com bust in 2000, many workers decided to retrain for other technical fields. As a result, “we saw them here,” says Kehnemouyi. Now, biomedical, mechanical, and environmental engineering are popular majors, as well as nanotechnology and robotics, he says. “Engineers always ride the storm; there’s always demand.”


Corinna Wu is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Calif.




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