Letter to Editor: Appreciating Adult Learners

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It’s usually around 8:21 p.m. when my classmates’ head tilts slightly to the left as he struggles to keep his eyes open during the last hour of class. Not that the material isn’t engaging, but he’s been awake since 5 a.m. attending to parenting duties, followed by an exhausting 9-hour work day, not to mention his commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan during the intense MTA morning and evening rush hours.  A sleepy student to an outside observer, but a hardworking employee, father, and student pushing himself to his limits in the eyes of someone who took the time to connect with him on a personal level. 

As I look around, he isn’t the only one on the verge of fading away right along with each transitioning PowerPoint slide. 

Full-time work and part-time school seem to be the common narrative in the classrooms of Mercy College after 6 p.m.  This narrative usually includes a spouse, children, and/or some type of toy dog, which is the relative make-up of New York City’s adult learners.  Part-time school, in most cases, still means a full agenda for an adult learner, including studying, tests, classwork, assignments, and homework— a whole lot of homework!  It’s important that the term “part-time school” not be equated with less work. 

A little over a decade ago, an Associate’s Degree right out of high school was enough to land someone a decent paying job in corporate America— that has changed.  Typical introductions during the first day of class with a majority of adult learners range from the 5-year professional looking to excel to the next level, all the way to the 10-year accomplished professional looking to divert from their initial career trajectory. 

I present to you the adult learner: there’s the physically fit adult learner who goes to the gym before their full-time job; the parent who drops off their children at school before their shift begins at their full-time employment; the entrepreneur working to get their business off the ground and using school as a catapult; and the United States veteran looking to thrive in society after serving their country.  These are just a few examples of the types of professionals one can expect to interact with in a classroom of adult learners.  The word “seasoned” comes to mind as my classmates, professionals with a wealth of knowledge in their area of interest, share stories, recite policies, and withdraw past work experiences from their memory bank to give the class an idea of the successes they’ve achieved at their place of employment.

During these sessions of sharing, I can’t help but think of the social media platform LinkedIn.  It’s difficult to overlook how beneficial it is to sit in a classroom filled with a majority of adult learners.  The access to network with professionals across multiple arenas in a live setting, outside of the cyber world, is invaluable.  One conversation can lead to an interview at an organization where one would’ve otherwise been considered simply another job applicant.  The benefits of LinkedIn in today’s world apply to everyone since the potential to connect with professionals outside one’s geographical location is unlimited, but in-person networking is just as important.

At the front of the class, one may have professors well-versed in their area of practice, and establishing professional relationships with professors can work in your favor, but there is something very special about being able to connect with your fellow students.  By speaking with my fellow classmates, I’ve had the honor of building relationships with them— students who are also teachers, principals, managers, paralegals, attorneys, and CEOs, all within the confines of the classroom setting.

  Opportunities to attend workshops, social gatherings, board meetings, and career development seminars have all blossomed from seeds planted during networking sessions in the classrooms and hallways of Mercy College.  Continuing education can be intimidating for all students, including adult learners, but one of the most important lessons I’ve learned so far has been the value of forging support and solidarity with my classmates. 

– James J. Hernandez