12/13/09 — Students turn tassels

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Students turn tassels

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on December 13, 2009 1:50 AM

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Dr. Ellen Jordan, vice president for academic affairs at Mount Olive College, speaks with students just before graduation ceremonies Saturday.

MOUNT OLIVE -- More than 280 students graduated Saturday from Mount Olive College at the school's 56th winter commencement.

Eric Christian Bourgeois of Goldsboro, graduating summa cum laude with a degree in biology, was honored with the Dr. Thomas R. Morris Award for academic excellence. Bourgeois, who graduated with a 3.9 grade point average and was on the dean or president's list every semester while attending Mount Olive College, plans to attend graduate school.

The commencement speaker was the Rev. Dr. John Blackwell, dean of the chapel at Kansas Wesleyan University, who encouraged the students to live lives dedicated to community, something he characterized as the college's legacy.

"That legacy is communion in time, through love, which is beyond time," Blackwell said.

"When commencement comes, you will come to forks in the road often. Education will help you take the right fork," he said.

Among the new graduates facing those choices is Goldsboro resident and native New Yorker Stephanie Jenkins, a grandmother who returned to school at the age of 47 to fulfill a life-long dream.

When Ms. Jenkins moved to North Carolina in 1989, she didn't believe t a college degree was part of her future.

"I wanted to do it, but you know, you always have that little thing in the back of your mind, that little 'It's too late, you should have done it when you had the chance to, and you're too old,'" she said.

Then someone told her about the Mount Olive College Heritage Program, which provides a setting for adults returning to school but only requires one night a week of classroom attendance and offers many online courses.

Even so, the first few months were a difficult adjustment for her. Although there were other adults in school with her, at 46 years old, she was the oldest, and Ms. Jenkins felt awkward about being back in school.

"I felt like a fish out of water, and really was looking to just throw the whole thing up in the air and forget it. When I first got there, it was just like a Charlie Brown movie, when you have the teacher going 'wah-wah-wah.' I was like, what is she saying? Everybody was writing, I was like, what are you writing? I just could not catch up," she said.

But as time passed, she achieved good grades and made friends with her fellow students.

"I started getting really excited, and I guess the camaraderie with the other students (helped), because they call it a cohort, you're with the same people most of the time, and you can lean on each other," Ms. Jenkins said.

And the college staff ended up making a difference in her life she never expected.

"The teachers were wonderful, and I always tell everybody, it is such a misconception, it is such an outlandish lie, when you use that phrase, 'Those who can't, teach.' I know for a fact that the teachers at MOC have thrown that completely out the window. Those that can, will and have, teach," she said.

Inspired by her professors, Ms. Jenkins has decided to further pursue academics even after receiving her associate's degree in 2007.

The day that she graduated with her associate's degree, she said, she had an epiphany. As the graduating students walked into the hallway where the professors were lined up, wearing their academic regalia, she suddenly saw the colors of their caps and gowns in a new light.

"I looked out, and I saw the faces of my professors, those who pushed me, guided me, encouraged me. I was shocked. It just threw me back, how wonderful they looked, and then, in my spirit ... it reminded me of Noah, when God put the rainbow, and he said, this is a covenant between you and me, and this is a promise for a better future, for a tomorrow. And that's when I said, 'Okay, this is a covenant between me and Mount Olive College, and when I finish this day, I'm going to apply for my bachelor's degree,'" she said.

Going back to school later in life does not have to be an impossible hurdle just because of a person's age, she said.

"You're never too old. You're going to be the same age you are now if you were in school. It's never too late," she said.

The Heritage Program, a liberal arts program for adults returning to school, is part of the Mount Olive College's outreach designed for older adults seeking to earn a degree. The online courses were a big part of making the program possible for her, Ms. Jenkins said.

"I'm a full-time working person, I have a family, and it's difficult for me to say I can take three or four days or nights, or ask my boss to let me off early so I can get to school, but one night a week? You can do one night," she said.

She has plans to continue studies even further. She is applying to the East Carolina English Department graduate program.

"I want to teach, and I want to teach college level. I want to give back what was given to me. I am not the same person I was when I first started that day, and I owe that to the professors and to Mount Olive College," she said.

She is a very outspoken proponent of the college, and her coworkers tease her about her very visible support of the Trojans. But she shrugs it off, Ms. Jenkins said.

"My t-shirt, my sweatshirt, my umbrella, I've got my little MOC stuff all over my desk. And they're like, you're so crazy, you're just in love with that college. I was like, you know why? Because that college means a lot to me. That was a point in my life that I started over with a focus," she said.