They are a couple of decades older than many of the other graduates who will walk in commencement ceremonies at Pittsburg State University this weekend, but that will make earning their degrees that much sweeter, they say.
LeeAnn Kershner, 42, and Joanna Rhodes, 45, are among a growing number of students who are returning to college later in life, oftentimes juggling children, jobs, and extracurricular activities along with coursework.
Currently, one in 10 college students in the U.S. is age 40 or older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2027, an estimated 3.3 million students will fall within this age group.
“Going back to school allowed me to become that version of who I’m meant to be,” Rhodes said. “Growth never stops.”
After high school, Kershner earned a cosmetology license, got married, began a family, and worked in a salon for 15 years until moving to Pittsburg. In 2016, she took a leap of faith and enrolled at PSU.
“When I started school, my husband Mike and I were both full-time students — he was finishing a degree that he began 25 years prior,” she said. “He worked a full-time and part-time job, and I was working part-time. We also had three young children.”
When Mike graduated in 2018, LeeAnn took a break from school to work full-time and get the family back on solid financial footing.
They bought a house and remodeled it so Mike’s mom could move in with them. She became an active volunteer in their children’s activities and schools. And then, the pandemic hit.
“I had to quit my job to stay home with the kids, and about that time I decided it would be a great time to go back to school and complete my degree,” LeeAnn said.
Transitioning back to being a student was difficult for her at times. But faculty and staff encouraged her.
“They truly care about the students and support them-no matter what age,” she said. “They advocated, supported, advised, invested in and encouraged me. They went above and beyond to ensure that I was successful in school and that the other areas of my life — being a wife and mother — were not being neglected.”
“My children inspired me and motivated me. I think that education is valuable and important, and my husband and I both want to set examples for our children,” she said. “It was not easy for us as non-traditional students with children, but we did it and we are both first generation college graduates!”
On Saturday, she’ll be awarded her bachelor’s degree in general studies, with enough hours in psychology to constitute an emphasis.
“I’m feeling excited to be done with homework, sadness because school will be over and because I generally love learning and classes, and pride because I did it,” she said. “It was not always easy, and I am graduating with honors.”
And, she began a job as a preschool teacher at Countryside Christian School — a job for which she has a passion.
“It is fulfilling, and I work with some incredible people,” she said.
“I did it for myself.”
As soon as Joanna Rhodes earned a bachelor’s in nursing in 2000, she set a second goal: to one day return to school to earn a master’s in nursing.
“I remember when my husband Drew and I first started dating saying I would someday go back,” said Rhodes, who works at Girard Medical Center and wants to become a nurse educator at a college.
Twenty-two years after graduating the first time and setting her goal, Rhodes will be awarded her master’s degree with an education emphasis on Saturday.
“I started in January 2020, almost exactly 20 years after my first degree, and right before COVID shut everything down,” she said. “The hardest thing? Remembering how to study and write papers. And technology has changed a lot.”
She reshaped her morning and nighttime routines so she could be successful — but it still was challenging.
“Having three children who are very active in sports, dance, karate, and gymnastics, and a husband who travels for our business, Ron’s Supermarket, required a lot of planning and help from others,” she said.
That includes in-laws Ron and Barbara Rhodes, and parents Mark and Pam Walker who moved to the area last year to help with the children.
“We also have moved twice in the last year,” Rhodes said. “I’m not sure I could have gotten through it without all the support.”
>Her kids were also among her biggest motivations to finish. But there was a time she questioned her ability to.
“I was so stressed from my own expectations and trying to meet everyone else’s expectations,” she said. “Once I realized that I was the only one putting that much pressure on myself, then it all became easier, and nothing was going to stop me. My kids just wanted me to be happy and available. This was something I had to do for myself.”
Incredibly, while going to school she also trained for and competed in three triathlons.
“We as parents always put so much focus on our kids and tend to forget about ourselves,” she said. “I gave myself permission to win, so I could be the best mother and wife to my family.”
She also was encouraged by faculty and staff in the Irene Ransom Bradley School of Nursing.
“All the faculty have high expectations of the students and are easy to approach,” she said. “I never felt like I was on my own.”
Commencement ceremonies are planned Friday and Saturday at PSU. Details: Commencement