Older students in the classroom

By Natalie Kouba
Former Editor-in-Chief

In the short span in two years, Valerie Tomaszewski, 45, found her life completely changed from a being a stay-at-home mother of three to becoming practically a single mom — juggling classes at the College during the day, caring for her children before and after school and the whole family visiting her husband together in a nursing home throughout the week.

Her husband, Jon, suffered from brain injuries after a news-breaking doubledecker bus accident on Sept. 11, 2010, in which he attempted to drive the bus under a bridge with a low clearance hidden around a bend in the road. Four people died, a two-year long court case followed. Just when he was acquitted and things began looking up for the family, tragedy came again when he had a stroke in 2012, leaving him permanently brain damaged and with dementia. He continues to deteriorate everyday into an infant-like state, Tomaszewski said, and is living in a nursing home because his level of care is too great for her to manage.

“My husband was the primary breadwinner, and now I had to do something,” Tomaszewski said. “He has suffered a lot, too, and I just pray for him to have peace. Tomorrow will be 13 years I have been married, and it will probably be the last anniversary. It’s sad. I miss him.”

Anticipating her husband will not recover from his diminishing state of health, Tomaszewski knew she needed to be able to support her family financially, and so, she returned to college when she was 43 years old. Pursuing a degree in English and secondary education, she hopes to continue on to study for a master’s, possibly right here at the College.

College campuses bustle with excited high school grads thrilled with living on their own for the first time, cramped up in an old dorm room, finding new friends and developing themselves into productive young adults. But there is a group of students not typically thought of as an average “college student,” those not pictured in the college pamphlets scattered across campus — those students enrolling in college as adults, not immediately following their high school graduations.

“When you first walk in to the first day, they all kind of look at you like, ‘Is this the professor?’” said English major Deborah Fade, 49, who just completed her last semester.

Adults with not roommates, but spouses; not dorm rooms, but houses; and not meal plans and mini fridges, but kitchens and a sink full of dishes, are either heading back to college or starting a bit later than most people do.

At the College, a small margin of students are of 25 years or older and pursuing higher education.

“There are 238 undergraduate students that are age 25 or older attending TCNJ (fall 2014). That’s approximately 3.5 percent of our undergraduate student population,” said David Muha, associate vice president of Communications, Marketing and Brand Management. “Breaking that out a little further, 116 are full-time and 122 are part-time, 149 are matriculating (pursuing degrees) and 89 are non-matriculating (taking classes for interest).”

Some of these students already have degrees from other colleges or universities, while for others, this is their first pursuit of higher education.

“After high school, I didn’t want to go to college. I just wanted to get a job right away,” Fade said. “During that time, I had a job at a newspaper, a couple of ad agencies, small time ones in New Jersey. Not big New York stuff, but always working with the copywriters or secretaries or the president of the company. But it was always secretarial positions.”

Because she lacked a degree higher than her high school education, Fade could not advance into any higher positions at her entry level jobs, and she had a family to look after while her husband went to work each day. Following a typical family plan, she married and now has two teenage daughters: Molly, 16, and Rebecca, 11.

It wasn’t until seven years ago when a friend suggested she begin taking classes since her children were of school age. With a “Why not?” attitude, she started at Middlesex Community College with two classes and earned her associates degree four years later. Afterward, she found out about a transfer scholarship at the College, which she received, and enrolled as a full-time student.

Attending college while raising her children has also brought on struggles, time constraints and self-doubt on herself to an extent.

“I get home from here, scramble to get dinner together, or sometimes stop to do grocery shopping before I go home.” Fade said. “By the time everybody is settled, it’s like 10 p.m., time for homework, and I’m falling asleep reading, basically.”

Not only does Fade manage her own schooling and her family’s schedules, but both her daughters have struggled with serious health conditions. Molly struggled with mental health — self-harm and depression — in her earlier teen years and, as a result, was checked into the hospital two times in the past four years.

“She went through cutting. The first time this came up, she had suicidal thoughts,” Fade said. “They evaluated her and put her in the hospital. That was right before I graduated Middlesex, within a few weeks actually. Somehow I made it through that.”

Rebecca, on the other hand, struggles with a physical health condition since beginning puberty, one which Fade herself battles with as well — although hers is currently in remission. Described as an autoimmune disorder, similar to Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis is only treatable, not curable.

“She is currently on a cancer medication, actually,” Fade said. “It suppresses your immune system, so the poor kid can actually catch anything very easily.””

Ailments aside, Fade said her children are doing better, and she even hopes they can one day attend the College. In the meantime, Fade is hunting for jobs for post-graduation, passing along her résumé through right here at the College’s English department.

After high school, Tomaszewski graduated with a double associates degree in Patternmaking and Accessories Design from the prestiged fashion school in the hub of New York City, the Fashion Institute of Technology. But once she had children, she realized she wanted to be home, and a career in teaching seemed to be the perfect fit.

Even before her needs changed in the wake of her husband’s accident, Tomaszewski knew she wanted to go back to school. This semester was her first one at the College, as she previously studied at Kean University. Knowing of the College’s excellent education program, she applied three times before getting accepted. Now, she juggles homework after bedtime and attends class between Girl Scout meetings and cooking dinner for her three children: John, 12, Matt, 8, and Julianna, 6.

Her days begin at 6 a.m., sometimes a few hours earlier depending on the assignments she has to do. After waking up her children, eating breakfast and rounding everybody up in the car, she drops them off at school. Once home, she packs her lunch for the day, maybe squeezes in a load of laundry and heads to campus from her home in Bordentown for a day of classes.

“I have to stop studying by 4 p.m. because then I have to make dinner, pick up my kids from school, bring my son to Kumon two nights a week, Girl Scouts, read with the kids every night, check homework and get them ready for the next day,” Tomaszewski said.

And while her children have their own extracurricular activities, Tomaszewski finds little time to pursue any of her own.

“Going to school is really good because it gives my mind something to focus on,” she said. “And the other thing is that having that goal and seeing that vision is what gets you through the hard times. And I can’t quit. Sometimes this school is so hard, that I think, ‘Oh, forget it. I can’t do this.’ But I can’t quit,  because then I think about, well what else am I going to do?”

Sandra Leith just turned 30 in October and is a full-time commuter at the College, pursuing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in elementary deaf education with a minor in women’s and gender studies.

“TCNJ just fell into place,” Leith said. “It’s funny, actually. I’ve been involved in this college for more years than I have been a student here.”

As a part of Circus Place, a circus arts education, training and party host, Leith made connections with the College when Circus Place teamed up with the Circus Club on campus. She spoke with many students and asked questions about the school before applying and enrolling.

“There have been times where I have felt out of place, when listening to other students’ stories,” Leith said. “I guess I just try to keep in mind that we’re all on the path to complete our degrees, so I can interact with them in terms of studying and asking for their input on projects.”

Tomaszewski noticed the lack of respect she felt from younger students at the College, almost like they devalued her opinion because of her age instead of respecting it because of her experience. At Kean, the higher diversity and number for adult students made them feel not so out of place. But students pursuing higher education at the College over the age of 25 can often be left feeling out of place as the minority.

While they don’t return to a dorm room with a group of like-aged roommates, adult students search for balance in their schedules. For many, it isn’t always easy squeezing in time for homework after a day caring for a family, but it is necessary.

“I need to do this for myself,” Fade said, “I’m doing it for my family, but hey, now I can get a good-paying job and start moving up.”