Age no barrier to being a Coug at WSU Vancouver

Ranging from teens to senior citizens, students say broad mix enhances learning experience

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

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WSU Vancouver

• Years at Salmon Creek campus: 17 (The school originally opened in 1986 and operated out of Bauer Hall on the Clark College campus until the permanent site opened in Salmon Creek in 1996.)

• Campus acreage: 351.

• Expected number of students in 2013: 3,000, including more than 200 freshmen, the largest entering class so far.

• Average student age: 26.

• Average freshman age: 19.

• Degrees offered: 20 bachelor's degrees, nine master's degrees, two doctorate degrees.

• Local roots: The WSU Vancouver campus used to be a dairy farm. There was heavy rain at the groundbreaking, and guests were reminded to look out for cow patties as they walked through the wet grass.

• Great views: WSU Vancouver is the only WSU campus with views of the Cascade volcanoes. On a clear day, the campus offers stunning views of Mount St. Helens, Mount Hood and Mount Adams.

• Graduates: The first formal WSUV graduation was held in 1990 with 38 graduates. In May, the school graduated 906 students.

• Technology: WSUV spearheaded the digital technology and culture degree, a program that has spread to other WSU campuses including Pullman and Tri-Cities.

• Water: Vancouver is the only WSU campus with a fountain — The Firstenburg Family Fountain, which rests at The Quad in the center of campus.

• Dorms: WSUV doesn't have dorms. The school is exploring off-campus housing options for 2014, but there are no plans to build residence halls in the immediate future, said spokeswoman Laura Evancich.

With no dorms, an average student age of 26 and 350 miles of roadway between it and the main campus in Pullman, the school experience at Washington State University Vancouver just isn't the same as that of a traditional college.

But that doesn't mean students returning to the Vancouver campus Monday are at a disadvantage.

Many students and professors say the diverse age range of students, from about 18 to 60, and the challenges of being a commuter school often broaden the educational experience and create more benefits than problems.

Chris Chaffin, 40, a history student entering his senior year, said he was a bit nervous when he first went back to college after working in retail and hotel management for 15 years.

"It was a little intimidating at first," Chaffin said. "I'm in class with kids that are literally old enough to be my children. But I'm also surrounded by people (including the younger students) who are like-minded and interested in the same things."

He said he's learned there are a lot of benefits to interacting with the younger students.

"I kind of like being the oldest student actually," Chaffin said. "The younger ones, they kind of look up to you. They have more book-learning coming in, but you have more street smarts. It's a good mix and we can help each other."

Mary Davies, 20, who's working on a bachelor's in history with a minor in anthropology, said she also learns a lot from the older students in her classes. She went to Clark College before transferring into WSUV and prefers the mix at the university, she said.

"At Clark, there were a lot of kids just out of high school," Davies said. "It's refreshing to be able to go to class at WSUV and talk to others as an adult. The older students, they tell me about their lives and what's going on and it's at a different point from where I am. The older people are there because they want to be there and they have more to talk about."

Still, that's not to say there aren't challenges, said Aaron Whelchel, a history professor who teaches freshmen classes at WSU Vancouver.

"Some of the challenges include recognizing that students from different backgrounds bring different skill sets with them," Whelchel said. "Out of high school, they're in the groove of writing papers, going to classes. Older students may not be used to doing that on a regular basis, and the technology may be different."

But students who have been out in the workforce also bring a depth to classroom discussions that you usually don't find at a traditional campus like Pullman, where he has also taught, Whelchel said.

"Part of the diversity, something I've noticed, is that we have a lot of veterans returning, and I think that's a really good component," Whelchel said. "They bring a broader picture of what the roots are of some of these conflicts we talk about. And other students benefit from that."

Older students also bring a different historical perspective than those coming straight from high school. Some remember living through things like the fall of Communism, the first Gulf War or the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Interacting across age boundaries broadens the experience," Whelchel said. "I think that's a great benefit."

Davies said she enjoys hearing firsthand stories from the older students, but sometimes she also feels like she's missed out on the traditional college experience by going to a campus with no dorms. That said, she's also glad she didn't have to leave her hometown or her parents.

"My whole goal is just to get through school," Davies said. "It's just nice that there's something so close and I don't have to be separated from my family. But at the same time it's not the same as a real campus. My friends who go to school in Colorado, there are so many activities."

If she wants to go to a WSU home football game, she has to drive the six hours or so to Pullman. And she can't hang out in a dorm room and have the sort of campus-life experience like her friends who go to traditional colleges.

"It's not the full college culture," Davies said.

Whelchel said there's certainly a challenge of not having dorms on campus, but there are also many opportunities.

"But we do make a lot of effort to have those campus-life experiences," he said. "There are always posters and billboards promoting various activities that our students are involved in. We have a very active student government. There are hiking trips, bus trips to football games in Pullman. But in terms of that complete immersion in campus, without a residential component it's hard to get that."

'A seriousness'

Older students often come at the college experience from a different perspective. Dorms aren't all that important, and after spending some years in the workforce they're just really motivated to learn, said Sue Peabody, another WSUV history professor.

"Faculty love working with students who have some life experience," Peabody said. "They bring a seriousness to their work. They've made a conscious decision to be here and they bring a passion to their work."

That's true for Chaffin, who said he doesn't regret his time in the workforce.

Chaffin tried a semester of college right out of high school, but the timing just wasn't right. At that age, he was more interested in getting out into the world and earning some money.

It was the years in the workforce that helped him realize he wanted more, he said.

"There's a huge advantage of being older and coming back with a different point of view," Chaffin said. "It comes down to maturity. I wasn't ready for it when I was 17 or 18. And I was able to use the work ethic I developed from my parents and from being in the workforce when I came back to school."

Hitting the ceiling at a job that doesn't fire your imagination can also be a great motivator to move on, he added.

"I got tired of doing something I wasn't really interested in," Chaffin said. "You peak at certain positions and they want a bachelor's or master's degree for you to advance. I got tired of topping out and having no place to go."

He returned to school at age 34 and already has a humanities degree from WSUV. He's working on his second degree in history and hopes to finish his master's and Ph.D. in the future.

"I haven't ruled out teaching, but I love the research aspect of history," Chaffin said. "There's a broad market for historians. You can be an archivist in a university library, a museum curator or you can do field research."

Going back to college even later in life also has its rewards.

Vicky Barnes, 52, will be a freshman when she starts her first class Monday.

“I did the 18-year-old-go-to-a-junior-college-and-play-around thing, and then I had babies and decided to stay home,” Barnes said.

When her youngest entered kindergarten, she decided to get an associate’s degree from Clark College, and since then she’s worked as a human resources specialist in Vancouver Public Schools.

Her youngest daughter recently graduated from Seattle Pacific University, and watching her four children enjoy the college experience gave her the bug, Barnes said.

“It was exciting watching the girls go through school, but I was also so jealous,” Barnes said.

She wants to get a degree in human development from WSUV and become a social worker. Since she’s still working, she’s only taking one class at a time, but she said she’s not concerned about the timing.

“I’m not really looking at retirement as this great thing,” Barnes said. “I feel like I did everything in reverse, like I had a sort of retirement when I got to spend time with my children. Now I feel like I have a lot to give back. So if I become a social worker after age 65, that’s fine, too.”

Still, she hopes to go full time after she has some of the prerequisites done to speed up the process.

And if she’s the oldest person in her classes this year, she said she’s OK with that.

“I’m excited about sharing my own experiences to help give some perspective to the younger students,” Barnes said. “And I hope I’ll learn the enthusiasm and pick up other things from the younger students. I’m just very excited and happy to be going back.”