Community college resources can prove invaluable for older students looking to enter, or reenter, the workforce, and to learn new skills in pursuit of career advancement.
When it comes to self-improvement, not all strides take place on treadmills at the gym.
In the lead-up to 2019, and the different resolutions Pennsylvania and New Jersey residents could bring into the new year, this news organization spoke with individuals who sought to become something more than they were, and the institutions that offered them the opportunities for growth.
John Colona, a teacher’s assistant for fourth graders with behavioral disabilities at Burlington County Special Services School District, said he’s worked with the district for the past 16 years and enjoys what he does — namely, watching students’ progression over the course of each school year. The students might start in September struggling to read, he said, but, “Come June, they’ve made strides, where they’re getting closer, and you see they’re happy with themselves.”
Now, Colona said he wants to help a broader swath of students rather than a set number of kids in a classroom — a resolution that led him back to school himself. He started coursework at Rowan College at Burlington County last year, where a program now is enabling him to take his last classes for a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Rowan University for a discounted rate.
Higher education wasn’t always in the cards for Colona — “I definitely wanted to finish a degree but I wasn’t really sure what my calling was” — who said he spent a year at acting school out of high school before returning home. Though he took the occasional community college class here and there, Colona, now 35, said he decided definitively to enroll in a program last summer.
After finishing a master’s program at Rowan University, Colona said he intends to return to Rowan College and obtain a chemical dependency associate credential, which he said will prove helpful in counseling any students living with parents who struggle with drug addictions.
“Getting that certification would be something I could use to help the younger kids who are seeing things they shouldn’t see, to learn how to cope with that,” he said, adding that, through counseling, he could steer children toward making different life choices when they’re older.
Pursuing the new degrees was the right move, Colona said, adding that he encourages anyone mulling a similar move to “definitely take the leap.”
“I was apprehensive because I knew I would be taking a full-time class schedule. With a full-time job and a family at home, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to carry my weight,” he said. “I really learned about myself and what I can do by going back to school. It’s amazing how well you can function on four hours of sleep.”
Stories like Colona’s aren’t uncommon at Rowan College, said Jarrett Kealey, the school’s director of advising and retention.
“Many students return to college after starting out in a career,” Jarrett Kealey said. “Every person has a unique situation and we have many services including evening student services hours and online courses to assist all students. Every conversation with a returning student starts with learning about their needs, challenges and goals and helping them develop an academic plan that meets those needs.”
Also taking coursework at Rowan College is Jerome Thorpe, a former Air Force electrician currently working as an electrical supervisor at Federal Correctional Institute‐Fort Dix, who began seeking an alternative energy degree at the start of the fall semester.
Thorpe said he temporarily closed his electrical contracting business so, with the help of the degree, he can add solar panel installation to his list of services. The knowledge will not only help him become part of what he called the “alternative energy revolution” and reduce his carbon footprint, but also in teaching electrical work to prison inmates.
He also hopes he can take what he has learned in the classroom and impart it to some of the inmates, to whom he teaches electrical work during their sentences.
“To transform their lives to do better, that gives me a good feeling as well,” said Thorpe, who added that some inmates he taught went on to obtain electrical jobs after their sentences ended. “I’m preparing them for the future. The degree I’m going for is definitely a big help.”
Self-improvement resources are not exclusive to Rowan College. Across the river, at Bucks County Community College, the Encore for Adult Learners program is geared toward helping students, alumni and county residents typically above 30 years old retrain or retool their skills in preparation for entering, or reentering, the workforce.
Though the program no longer receives grant funding, as it did starting off, Encore lives on at the community college, overseen by Tara Faigle, a counselor in the student services department. Through Encore, she said, people can take personality and skill assessments, and learn how to tackle job hunting however suits them best.
“If someone is getting interviews, but not job offers, we can analyze what’s going on in the interview process or what’s getting in the way,” Faigle said.
She said she also will help people review career paths, including discussion of salaries and growth in different fields moving forward.
A series of cuts at the construction rental company where Newtown Township resident Susan Pfizenmayer previously worked as an office manager forced her to consider prospects elsewhere.
Pfizenmayer said she attended job fairs and participated in job groups and networking opportunities, but it was a sit down with Faigle that proved most valuable. Pfizenmayer said after the meeting she decided to learn QuickBooks software, a skill she said now often is required for office management employment.
After over a year of searching, Pfizenmayer said she found success, and in July 2017 accepted a job as a senior administrative assistant — at the advancement department of Bucks County Community College, no less.
Of her reaction to learning she got the job, and her search was over, she said, “I screamed and jumped up and down.”
“It was just a major relief,” Pfizenmayer elaborated, adding that she liked what she saw of her prospective co-workers while interviewing. “They were very nice, very friendly, energetic, and I really looked forward to working with them. It was the culmination of everything I’d done over the years.”
Even if the immediate results appear discouraging, and “you wonder if your resume goes into a black hole,” Pfizenmayer encouraged those still engaged in job hunting to not give up, and continue checking out opportunities.
“You never know,” she said. “I had a few job interviews, and all of a sudden (my current position) came up.”