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Fort Wayne: Hotbed of Higher Education
For working adults returning to school, Fort Wayne offers some amazing opportunities.
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Many moons ago, FWR took an informal survey for an article on what residents of Fort Wayne liked about their city. People mentioned the low cost of living, the arts, and how folks here were generally “nice” (hey, that’s what they said). But the response we did not see coming: the number of great educational opportunities for working adults.
Fort Wayne’s colleges and universities are one of the fastest growing sectors in the area. IPFW, Ivy Tech, and Indiana Tech, among others, have not only expanded their physical facilities in recent years but have added to the number of programs and degrees they offer, with night courses, accelerated programs, weekend classes and other options that can accommodate a working adult, sometimes with a family, willing to put in the time and energy to earn a degree.
Not that juggling family, career, and school is easy, no matter what option you take. Whether they’re going back for Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, to add a skill or two to their resume, to qualify for a better position at work, or to “get their brains moving again,” working adults returning to school are sometimes faced with a level of logistical planning that can seem on par with a polar expedition. The school part — the class schedules, the programs — actually might be the easiest part of it, with most area institutions doing everything they can to accommodate someone already juggling work and family add school to the routine.
Dan and Michelle Hoeye both returned to school in the midst of pursuing careers and raising a family. Several years ago, they moved to Fort Wayne from Colorado with their two young daughters so Dan could take a job at Sweetwater, Inc. Both had attended college but neither had finished their degrees — Dan had about a year left on a music degree while Michelle had devoted three years towards a degree in English with the goal of becoming a teacher. “We got married and started having kids, and it was kind of overwhelming,” Michelle says. “One thing lead to another and we didn’t finish school.”
Dan had started an audio production company with a partner, but the hours were long and odd for a family man. Thanks to his specialized knowledge of professional audio he was offered a job at Sweetwater, where he started in sales but moved into the marketing department about a year later. During their time in Fort Wayne, the Hoeyes added two more kids to the family.
So, with four kids and a demanding full-time job, it would seem finishing their college degrees might be the last thing Dan and Michelle wanted to consider. Still, Michelle says she felt something was missing for both of them. Dan adds: “It had been eating at me for a lot of years. I felt like I needed to finish a degree.”
What didn’t make sense was finishing the degrees they had begun before starting a family. “The primary focus of my career has shifted since I moved here,” Dan says. “It made more sense to go towards a business degree.” Michelle decided to pursue LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse) certification rather than teaching. “I liked the science and medical aspects of it, but there is still a lot of teaching involved with nursing, and I thought that sounded really exciting to me.”
Both Dan and Michelle looked at online degrees, but thought they were more “in-class kinda people.” Dan eventually found something he liked at Indiana Tech, pursuing a Bachelor’s of Science in Business with a minor in marketing in an accelerated program. “(The accelerated program) is a huge part of what works with this for me,” Dan says. “The sessions for undergraduates last five weeks; for grad studies it’s six. You meet for around four hours a night, one night a week, for those 5 or 6 weeks. In a year’s time, there are nine sessions, so you’re going to school year around.” He adds that students also have the option of taking two classes per session, though as you might expect, the workload is pretty heavy even with just one class.
With the accelerated program, Dan was able to earn his degree in three years. For him, though, the best part of the program was how it fit in perfectly with what he was doing in his career. “The classes are 10, 15 people, and what I love is, and this may be true of other institutions, the adjunct professors are people from this area, all practicing their subjects for a living,” he says. “For a guy in his mid-30s, who is going to school now because he actually has something that he wants to learn, it’s priceless to have that opportunity to learn from someone here in Fort Wayne doing that same thing, who can teach you what the textbook says, and how it’s actually working in the real world.”
Michelle went a somewhat more traditional route. She went to school full-time, and took general science courses at Ivy Tech before going to IPFW for the LPN program. “I had the option of going part time or full time, and I could finish a lot quicker going full time,” Michelle says. “As a nurse, the program is a little more intense, because you have clinicals, which are all day, more than once a week. It’s a little bit more, but I know they offer part time. A lot of universities are going to having classes on Sunday’s to accommodate working people.” (There’s a shortage of nurses so with her degree Michelle was able to get a job in the field right away).
“The cost of living (in Fort Wayne) made it possible for us to do this,” Michelle adds. “Dan works full time and went to school full time, and I went to school full time… with four kids. You could not do that anywhere else. That’s amazing to me, really.”
Dan and Michelle Hoeye’s situation may be unique in its specifics, but in general it has a lot in common with many working adults who are looking to earn a degree and found the perfect opportunity in Fort Wayne. Sara Peterson’s situation was a little different. She had graduated with a BA in psychology from Indiana University in Bloomington. Financial issues and family brought her back to Fort Wayne, where she entered IPFW’s Master’s program, pursuing an MBA. “I was looking for a program that was offering night courses so I could work full time during the day, something that was accredited, not just an online degree program,” Peterson says.
Peterson was able to get her degree in two years while working full time. She says many of her classmates were a little older (she was in her mid-20s), working full-time, and several were being reimbursed by their companies for their tuition.
An instructor in English and composition at IPFW says that many of her older students return to school for a complicated set of reasons. “I’ve had students say ‘I need X hours of college credit to take the next step up to manager in the firm I work for, and this course was meeting at a time that didn’t conflict with my work schedule,’ — things like that,” she says.
She says she doesn’t necessarily see a difference between the older students and those directly out of high school in terms of wisdom or knowledge. Where she does see a difference is in their approach to the work and the course. “They set a model of common sense industry that is just wonderful for the class.” Some of the younger students, she says, have very compelling reasons for not having done their work, and don’t realize that a note from a doctor doesn’t carry much weight anymore. “These older students who are past that stage where a good excuse is as good as doing the job are showing (some of the younger students) how the real world works. In the real world, what works is results.”
Even when the particular course is just something the student might be taking to fulfill a requirement, older students seem to realize they can glean something of value from the class, even if it’s not directly applicable to their career. They also have a clear understanding of what it means to go to school and the commitment involved. “A lot of my younger students think nothing of saying to me ‘I’m not going to be able to be in class then because I have to work.’ It seems obvious to them that work has to come first. The older students have already made very significant sacrifices in reorganizing their lives so that they can squeeze in the time for this class. They recognize it’s a commitment of sorts.”
Despite the number of colleges and universities in the area, Fort Wayne is far from being a college town; the campuses are too spread out, even the ones that have student housing. And with a lot of people we talked to, the decision to return to college as an older student was based on financial and practical considerations. They had families, jobs, and established ties to the community. They weren’t looking to immerse themselves in a college atmosphere. They certainly took the work seriously, but their focus was on the degree. “There really isn’t a college scene here in Fort Wayne,” says one. “It seems a lot of younger people who go to college here miss out on that.”(Sara Peterson, who received her MBA from IPFW in the spring of 2007, actually found she missed the college town atmosphere, so moved back to Bloomington when she found a job there last September).
But for working adults seeking to earn an advanced degree, there’s a lot to find in Fort Wayne. Still, Dan Hoeye wonders how many people realize or take advantage of it. As he puts it, the colleges and universities in town all seem to be “whacking the bushes to make the bunnies jump out.” He continues: “We seem to have to actively advertise and motivate people in this area — not just in Fort Wayne, but this area — to take advantage of a pretty unique thing, which are all these great opportunities for education.”