Life first, school second. The Michigan Reconnect Scholarship is encouraging students these students to rediscover and redefine their careers and passions, like this Traverse City resident who headed back to Northwestern Michigan College.

In 2019, Marilyn Dear graduated—at age 70—with an associate’s degree from Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City. “I had started college before I had kids and got married,” she says. “I finished 53 years later. It felt grand!”

For students like Marilyn, going back to school just got easier: The state launched the “Michigan Reconnect Scholarship” program in February, which offers free tuition for qualifying students 25 years of age and older who want to go to school and do not (yet!) have a college degree (michigan.gov/reconnect). The $30 million program is designed to bring students back to campus after a year of COVID-19 uncertainty.

Marilyn’s re-entry, however, began in 2011 when her sales job was eliminated.

At age 63, she says she wasn’t ready to close the book on learning just yet. She went for it—taking just one computer class that first semester at NMC. Then, she had a chance encounter with Doug Knorr, owner of Knorr Marketing in Traverse City. “Our kids had gone to school together, and he was looking for someone who knew Excel,” Marilyn says. “I told him I was taking a class on Excel, and on the last week of class, I started at Knorr.”

Marilyn first started her degree at Schoolcraft Community College in 1966, and she was able to transfer her 28 credits to NMC, something NMC Director of Advising Lindsey Dickinson says is usually surprising to the student.“We know that coming to college for the first time, or coming back, can be stressful, and our goal is to connect with students wherever they are on their journey,” she says.

To give students a taste of the campus, NMC offers open houses on Wednesdays from 4–7 p.m., hosted by staff from the Advising Center, Student Financial Services, the IT Help Desk and Success Coaching. Interested students can sign up ahead of time.

Lindsey emphasizes that the financial piece of the school puzzle is often solvable. “Beyond the Michigan Reconnect scholarship program, our Foundation and Financial Aid office gives away more than $1 million a year in scholarships to our students,” she says. “We never want finances to get in the way of students’ progress, so our team works hard in partnership with each student to make college possible.”

Woman graduating from college.

This year, as NMC reopens much of its campus, Lindsey notes that some changes due to the pandemic bring perks. “COVID was a game-changer for all of us, but has certainly given working adults time to think about what they want out of their future,” she says. “Many are deciding to return to school for a new or different career pathway, or to advance their skills for a current job.”

The shift to online courses last year proved to be beneficial as well. “Online has been the preferred mode of course delivery for many of our working adult students,” she says. “We’re excited to be back on campus this fall, but also know that our online courses are here to stay and that’s an important access point for many.”

Three public universities have launched tuition-free programs this year—Ferris State, Central Michigan and Saginaw Valley—with schools emphasizing the desire to help low-income students attend college. And some colleges in Michigan offer specific senior programs. At Michigan Tech, students 60 and older can have tuition waived for up to two courses per semester; Western Michigan University invites seniors 62 and older to register for one class per semester tuition-free; and Wayne State University offers seniors 60 and up a 75 percent discount on tuition.

Marilyn was often the oldest student in her classes as she continued to take a couple of courses a semester while working the next nine years at Knorr. “I was definitely one of the oldest students there, but there was a nice variety of ages in each class,” she says. In one particular class, her age was an asset the teacher brought to the forefront. “I took an American History class and the teacher would periodically ask things like, ‘Okay, Marilyn, what were you doing when Kennedy was shot?’” recalls Marilyn. “I could offer first-hand information on a lot of things! [Her answer: I was in high school and we all sat in the classroom and cried.] I felt kind of funny at first—but it was kind of fun to be able to bring that life experience to the younger generation.”

Marilyn is married, about to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary and has five children (and 11 grandchildren!). “They were proud of me! The kids all came to the graduation,” she says.

Kandace Chapple is a freelance writer and owner of Michigan Girl, an event planning business. She can be reached at kandacechapple.com

Photo(s) by Taylor Brown

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