Nontraditional College Students: Gina Edwards Talks About Starting College Later in Life

Changing your career or life path at any age can be a process filled with uncertainty and one that requires a great deal of courage. Especially so when that decision comes at the age of 56. Here to tell us about her experience making such a change is Gina Edwards. Gina is a graduate of Piedmont Virginia Community College and a recipient of the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship which she will be applying to her studies at Mary Baldwin University this fall.


Welcome and thanks for joining me today, Gina! Could you start by telling us a bit about your background and what made you decide to go to school?

Thanks for having me!

The nutshell version is this: I graduated high school in 1977 and wanted to go to college. Sadly, the career path I’d chosen (teaching/special ed) seemed closed with schools in Baltimore closing as student enrollment dropped (end of the baby boom generation!)

So, I worked as a secretary for years, got married, had kids, got divorced. I kept moving ‘up the ladder’, but I bumped into a combination of the glass ceiling and what I call the ‘sheepskin ceiling’ – no college degree.

After being laid off when a company I’d worked at for 15 years closed its doors, then again the following year when my temp job came to an end, I finally decided to broaden my path by expanding my education.


Did you have a lot of support when applying or did you find yourself taking the plunge on your own? Did you have any doubts or fears about applying?

I pretty much took the plunge on my own. My mom, daughters, and friends were very supportive and encouraging once I took that plunge.  It was a bit of a financial/emotional roller-coaster during my Community College years. But once I got started, nothing was going to stop me!

My only fear was that maybe I couldn’t ‘hack it’. I’m a sink or swim person – no dipping the toes in the water. My first semester, I took 19 credits and worked 32 hours a week. I made the President’s List and knew I could swim!


What was your time at PVCC like? Were you also working at the same time?

I can’t say enough about the support I received from faculty and administrators at PVCC! Everyone I met was committed to the success of each student on every level. More, they all took a personal interest in our lives beyond school.

I did work throughout my first two years, and plan to continue to work through my next two (or more) years. I mentor foster kids in my area, and work as an Office Admin at a church, a total of about 25 hours a week.


How did you manage such a workload? Do you have any tips you could share with our readers?

I know it sounds hard, but remember, my children are grown. One daughter still lives with me and is somewhat dependent on me – she has developmental challenges. I don’t believe I could have done it when they were young – I considered it, but realized I wouldn’t be able to perform well.


Here are some tips!

  1. Maintain your focus. If you can, set aside study/homework time at the same time every day. Forgive yourself if you break your routine.
  2. Get as many people behind you as you can for support (which can be anything from taking the kiddos for a few hours, to making you a dinner, to being a shoulder to cry on).
  3. Get to know your fellow students, of all ages, genders, races, etc.  Their viewpoints are going to be different from yours. Getting that input from various sources was very instrumental in moving me forward in my worldview.
  4. Get to know your professors, and meet with them during office hours, passing in the hall, etc.
  5. Be kind to yourself!
  6. DO NOT CRAM – you’ll just be exhausted and anxious. If you’ve taken good notes and read your books, just review. You’ve got it all in your head – relax and let it come out.
  7. Be kind to yourself! (yes, it bears repeating).


What did you study at PVCC and how do you hope to apply what you study after Mary Baldwin?

I graduated with an AS in General Studies; I focused on Sociology, even though I went in expecting to major in Business. One class with Professor Hoosier changed my trajectory!

There are so many ways I’d like to apply what I learn. I’m considering becoming a Qualified Mental Health Professional (QMHP) as my ‘day job’.

I’d like to start a business that would provide a decent standard of living for those adults on the autism spectrum or with mild brain injuries.

I’d like to start a camp for those same people and disabled veterans and their families where they can relax, enjoy and immerse themselves in nature and art.

Finally, I’d like to write a book – less scholarly, more fiction or creative non-fiction – based on my research into outcomes of adults who were in foster care. Something that would bring broader attention to this segment of society, and perhaps improve the system and supports.


Do you think starting at a community college may have better prepared you for the coursework of a four-year university?

Absolutely yes! As a non-traditional student, and a late-bloomer, the community college experience was pivotal in my decision to continue to my Bachelor’s Degree. The intimate, almost family-like, setting allowed me to blossom more fully than I think I would have if I’d started at a four-year university.


Any last words of wisdom or advice for our readers?

You can do this! No matter your age or your circumstances, if you feel that pull to go to college just do it.

I believe that traditional college isn’t for everyone and in some instances may NOT be the means to achieving your goals. I also believe, though, that a well-rounded education, exposure to the ideas of others not in your normal sphere of influence, and knowledge seeking keeps your brain alive and young.

If you’re on the right path, the path will be cleared for you. 

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