It’s been nearly a year since the Board of Regents for Higher Education launched the Go Back to Get Ahead program, an effort championed by Governor Dannel P. Malloy to give “lapsed” college students the opportunity to get their education back on track and develop a better-educated workforce and more-competitive state economy. Overall, the program, which offered free college courses to in-state residents who have started but not completed a degree, received nearly 9,000 inquiries and enrolled more than 1,400 students in the 17 Connecticut State Colleges and Universities from June 2014 through March 2015.
Seventy-two percent of the students who enrolled at Naugatuck Valley Community College under Go Back to Get Ahead in the fall of 2014 continued their coursework into the spring 2015 semester. Others have already earned a degree. Here are some of their stories:
Sharon Pelkey – Imagine going through life for two decades thinking you had a college degree and then learning you did not. Pelkey thought she graduated from NVCC in 1993, but after requesting a copy of her diploma two years ago, learned that she was two courses shy of an Associate’s Degree in Hospitality Management.
Last summer, after some encouragement from her mother, Pelkey started thinking about completing her degree. “And as we all know, we don’t usually listen to our moms, so I decided to give it a day or two and then I saw it [Go Back to Get Ahead] on TV and said ‘You know, maybe this is what she’s talking about’.”
Pelkey contacted the College and was pleasantly surprised by the ease of the transaction. At first, she was concerned that she wasn’t up to juggling the demands of a full-time job and returning to college, but she quickly learned that the life experience she had gained in the intervening 20 years since she was a college student helped her better manage time. “I didn’t feel stressed,” says Pelkey. “It actually made me have a little more balance in my work life.”
The mother of two boys, ages 17 and 21, is no stranger to stress. She plans events for Special Olympics Connecticut and crisscrosses the state, coordinating an estimated 70 events annually at all hours of the day and night. “I’m really happy doing what I do,” says Pelkey.
Pelkey completed her degree in December and shared her Go Back to Get Ahead experience with the Board of Regents for Higher Education in February. “I would definitely encourage people to do it,” she says. “It’s a win-win, as long as you’re committed.”
Now, Pelkey is considering a bachelor’s degree, perhaps in criminal justice. “I think education is important—constantly learning anything, whether it’s at college or not… knowledge is power.” And, she may not be the only NVCC graduate in the family for long; her younger son, mother and nephew are currently attending classes at the College.
Monica Quinones – After studying for one semester in the Pre-Medicine program at Albertus Magnus College, Quinones says her father’s health took a turn for the worse and she was confronted with a difficult choice: leave school or find a more-affordable option closer to home.
She attended NVCC for a couple of semesters, but as her father battled diabetes and kidney failure and the bills piled up, she put on hold her dream of a college degree. Quinones returned to the College briefly in 2008, but the financial burden was too much.
Last summer, she received a letter about Go Back to Get Ahead and learned that she was just two courses shy of earning a General Studies Associate’s Degree in Science. Poised to finish that final class this semester, Quinones will become the first member of her family to graduate from college. She’s looking forward to the next chapter in her life.
A Waterbury native, Quinones says she was always aware of NVCC, but feels its quality and value has improved. “It was a good school, but over the years of me stopping and going, I’ve seen the changes in this school and I think it’s so much better now than it was then.”
Quinones is now weighing her next step. In addition to working full-time as a medical billing specialist, she is considering a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing. Having overcome her own health challenges with a pituitary tumor and her late father’s health issues, she remains passionate about the medical field and helping people.
“Don’t give up,” she advises. “Don’t let anyone or anything deter you from your dreams.”
Patrick Brenker – As an assistant store manager involved in human resources for a regional supermarket chain, Brenker has encountered job applicants from every walk of life. It has made him appreciate the value of a quality education and recognize that it’s sometimes necessary to refresh and retool skills. Still, for years, a music course and a math course stood between him and earning a degree.
Having started college in 1999 and having attended classes full-time, part-time, in-person and online over the years, he was working toward a degree in Business Management. Then, last summer, he heard about Go Back to Get Ahead, first from his father and then from a phone call from NVCC. It turns out, he was only two courses away from earning an Associate’s Degree in General Studies.
Brenker took the music course in person and the math course online and completed his degree in December. He says it was a challenge to attend college and hold down a full-time job, but he’s confident that his hard work will pay off in the long run. “You take out as much of it as you put in,” he said.
His advice to others in a similar situation: explore your options, take online courses if possible and know that there are many people willing to help along the way. “Take the helping hand that you’re being offered,” says Brenker. “Every advisor I’ve met with, every counselor, everyone from the Admissions Office to every single professor here [at NVCC]… they’ve done nothing but give me the opportunities and the help that I needed, but I had to be willing to take that final step.”
Brenker is now considering the option to continue his studies at Central Connecticut State University.
Lisa Paradise – Having suffered a work-related injury and lacking the financial means to pay for the two courses required to complete her second degree from NVCC, Paradise, 53, of Plymouth heard about the Go Back to Get Ahead program last summer. She investigated further and found that she was eligible for a free course. She applied for financial aid to cover a second course and completed her Associate’s Degree in Social Work in December.
For Paradise, a new degree provides the promise of a new start. She first attended college in 1989 and earned a medical assistant certification, paving the way for a successful career as a team leader with an insurance company for 13 years. Then, Paradise suffered a setback in the form of an on-the-job injury. She required major surgery and had medical restrictions which no longer allowed her to perform her duties. Undeterred, she returned to NVCC in 2000 and earned an Associate’s Degree in Human Services in 2004.
A decade later and looking to begin a new chapter in her life, last summer Paradise returned to the College once again to earn a Certificate in Child and Family Services. That’s when she learned about the Go Back to Get Ahead program and that she was just a few credits shy of a second associate’s degree. The rest, as they say, is history. With her new degree in Social Work, Paradise hopes to land a job where she can make a difference by helping children and families in need and attain financial security for herself.
A mother of two and grandmother to three, Paradise says the support she received from her family buoyed her perseverance in completing not one, but two degrees from NVCC. But, she says you also have to believe in yourself. “You can’t give up and you have to be your own advocate.”
NVCC is celebrating 50 years of commitment to higher education. Stories like these illustrate the impact that the college has on individual lives that ultimately make such a difference in the community. If you have a story to share please contact the Marketing Office at 203-575-8276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.