Student Leadership Institute empowers and motivates adult learners

“Are you back in school again?”

“How long will it take you to finish? Just keep working – you don’t need a degree!”

To adult learners returning to college, these words from naysayers can impact their chances of successfully completing their studies.

Adult learners face unique challenges returning to higher education.  Often, they are balancing work, family and school. The may be stressed due to limited time, and as an older adult returning to school after several years, they can be unsure of themselves and where to go for help.

The Office of Student Development hosted its inaugural Student Leadership Institute (SLI) for Adult Learners May 16 on the Macon Cove Campus to empower adult students pursuing higher education to stay the course and become future leaders.  Student Development Director Phoenix Worthy said, “This institute will give our students the opportunity to dig deep within themselves to understand who they are as learners and to discover the many resources available to them on their academic journey.”

Dr. Jacqueline Taylor (far left) listens to a group present the results of their team-building exercise.

Dr. Jacqueline Taylor (far left) listens to a group present the results of their team-building exercise.

From team-building exercises to a panel of successful non-traditional students to a Ted Talk video, the day-long institute provided a variety of offerings on just how to squelch the naysayers and build a greater level of self-confidence among the adult-learners present. The collaborative initiative also brought in several departments from Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, and Career Services that presented information on a host of student supported services.

Vice President of Retention and Student Affairs Jacqueline Taylor conducted personality surveys and team building exercises that allowed students to analyze their personality types and communication styles. “These exercises will help students identify their strengths and weakness as learners,” said Taylor. “Once they know how to recognize personality traits within themselves and in others, they will be better able to open up their perspective on how to engage with each other and those outside their own academic environment.”

Facilitator and Vice President of Student Affairs Jacqueline Faulkner assembled a panel of accomplished community leaders who identified as non-traditional students during their college years. “We tend to put a number on adult learners as students 24 years of age and above,” said Faulkner.  “Adulthood is not a number, it’s a responsibility – you can be a mother, spouse, care giver and involved in your community – all these multiple roles can make you an adult before the age of 24.”

Faulkner said there is no age limit on accomplishing your goals in life. She introduced a panel of guests who graduated with degrees from different institutions at various ages, and who faced their own unique challenges and naysayers.  They were Mary Brignole, Herman Dickey, Ashanti Clark, and Dr. Erika Henderson.

“My husband said to me ‘You picked the worst time to go to college’ and I said when is it ever a good time?” said Mary Brignole, who returned to college at the age of 47.  Brignole took a job with a telephone company two days after her high school graduation.  She bypassed college because her family could not afford it and because she had no career goals. Brignole moved up the ranks to human resources manager but her office closed after 24 years. When she could not find a job equal to her position without a degree, she found a part-time job with the Orpheum where she noticed everyone around her had a degree. “I knew going to college would jumpstart my career,” said Brignole. While at the University of Memphis, Brignole decided to become an advisor and obtained her master’s degree in counseling in 2003. Now retired, she advised students for 15 years at the University of Memphis and ultimately served as its Director of the Center for Academic Retention.

Dr. Erika Henderson was a sophomore in high school when she had her first daughter.  “Everyone thought I’d drop out, but I proved all the naysayers wrong and went from teen mom to doctor mom,” said Henderson who graduated in the top 25 percent of her class.  Henderson wanted to attend a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), but because of housing issues, she chose to stay in Memphis and attend LeMoyne-Owen College where she graduated cum laude with a bachelor's degree in teaching as a single mother of two. She later obtained three masters and a doctorate from Union University.  Henderson has been a teacher, literacy coach and school principal in Shelby County, Atlanta, Chicago and Nashville and serves as the program associate for Facing History and Ourselves.

“My son was my motivating force to go back to school,” said Ashanti Clark.  “I wanted more for him and getting my degree was a lasting way to provide for my family.”  Clark was a teen mom as a senior at Central High School.  She earned a full academic scholarship to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, with her son at her side, and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in accounting. She then went to work in the accounting department at FedEx and in 13 years became the department’s first African-American executive advisor. In 2018, Clark was honored with the company’s prestigious 5 Star Award, recognizing employees whose accomplishments demonstrate innovation, collaboration, efficiency and profitability.  When thinking of work/life balance, Clark suggests replacing the word ‘balance’ with ‘integration.’  “Balance to me means a scale that has tipping points or it rests motionless in the middle; integration means we can manage being a mother, father, spouse, employee and student all at the same time without having to give up one portion of yourself for another.”

Dickey said he heard the naysayers early on. “One of my high school teachers told my mom I was not college material,” Dickey said. Those words haunted him for many years and impacted his decision to delay college for work. In the meanwhile, he became a successful entrepreneur as owner and creative director of Precious Memories. He also has served as a humanitarian working with the Memphis and Shelby County Homeless Consortium. He is an an actor, playwright, published author and gospel singer writer. “I think we all have to admit that we can be our own naysayers and that our negative thoughts can cripple us,” added Dickey.  He changed his way of thinking about college after hearing a church sermon and graduated magna cum laude in May of 2017 with an Associate of Arts in graphic arts from Southwest. He is currently pursuing a business degree at Strayer University where he holds a 4.0 GPA.

All four panelists’ remarks, the team building exercises and information sessions benefitted the students who attended the leadership institute. One of the adult learners, Lekisha Finkley, said she could identify with the plight of the panelists in going back to school. She graduated high school in 2010, and attempted to go to college that year but dropped out. She tried five more times and nine years later at the age of 27, she started school at Southwest as a freshman pursuing a degree in psychology. “The leadership institute has been great!” said Finkley.  “This workshop gave me all the information I need to succeed as a student.  It also gave me insights about my personality and how I can be a better learner and communicator.”

“I also returned to college late in life,” said adult learner Brandon North, now in his fourth year at Southwest.  When North graduated from high school in 2000, he had no plans to attend college until he turned 30 and his passion for cooking led him to pursue a degree in the culinary arts. North completed the hospitality program at Southwest, but things did not pan out as he expected, so he returned to school and is finishing an Associate of Arts in general education, a degree he says opens up more career possibilities for him. “I had to do a retrospective of who I am and what I really wanted to be in life.”

North said attending the leadership institute gave him a better understanding of who he is as a learner. “When I first came back to school, I had no idea how to reach out for help as an adult student; I had to discover things myself,” North said. “Today, all in one day, I learned what resources are at my disposal, how to identify my personality strengths and weaknesses, and I’ve met fellow students!”

Throughout the workshop, Worthy offered several inspirational nuggets for the participants. Before breaking for a scrumptious brunch catered by Tony Johnson Catering, Worthy encapsulated the day’s message: “Life is like photography, develop from the negatives.”

Brandon North and Lekisha Finkley

Brandon North and Lekisha Finkley

Dr. Jacqueline Faulkner (center) with ASL guest panelists Ashanti Clark, Mary Brignole, Herman Dickey, and Dr. Erika Henderson.

Dr. Jacqueline Faulkner (center) with ASL guest panelists Ashanti Clark, Mary Brignole, Herman Dickey, and Dr. Erika Henderson.