Returning Student Earns Degree for Herself | Virginia Peninsula Community College

Returning Student Earns Degree for Herself

June 17, 2021
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Kathleen and Bob Michaels have been married for 47 years.

Kathleen Michaels retired in August 2011 after working more than 40 years in resource management. She readily admits she has no desire to return to the workforce. She also admits to having “had a very full life.”

So when she decided to return to college in her late 60s, someone asked her “Why?”

“I never got a degree. I want one so I think I’m going to do it,” she said. “It’s just always been on my bucket list.”

The self-described “Army brat” was born at Fort Knox (Ky.) and grew up in Colonial Heights. After graduating from high school in 1968, she spent “a year and a day” at Longwood. Then life happened. She got married in 1974 and had a son in 1977. She spent much of the 1980s in Germany, where her husband was stationed. She also lived in Germany from ages 2-5. After returning to the States, she got a job at Fort Monroe.

Her first experience at Thomas Nelson was from 1991-95. She was enrolled again from 2000-02 before giving it a third try in 2017, taking three classes a semester and a few each summer. She’s putting the finishing touches (a statistics class) on an associate degree in business administration before heading off to the College of William & Mary for the fall semester to start work on a bachelor’s degree in religious studies. (At Longwood, her major was going to be home economics, but “they don’t teach that anymore.”)

She thinks she knows why she was successful this time.

“I guess it’s the relief of knowing that I’m doing this for me and not because I need a career,” she said. “That’s why I got so much joy out of it.”

Mary Hanlin, who had Michaels in an English class, agreed.

“She wasn’t just learning for the sake of doing well in the class. She was learning for the sake of ‘I have more to learn and to discover,’” Hanlin said. “She just really had that sense of ‘There is so much out there that I don’t understand that I want to discover.’”

That attitude also caught the eye of adjunct professor Bryan Jones, who had Michaels in a statistics class.

“She had the drive to finish at Thomas Nelson,” he said. “This last time, she just put her head down and went back and finished the degree. … I think that’s significant. I think people need to understand that you can start, go away and come back if your life situation changes.”

Michaels, who lives in York County with her husband of 47 years, said the hardest part of going back to college was getting him used to her new schedule because he’s disabled.

“My goal has been to not interfere with him on a normal day,” she said.

Scheduling and classmates often can be problems for students, but that wasn’t the case with Michaels. Since she has always been a morning person, she scheduled early classes. Her younger classmates were receptive of her, and often looked to her as a mentor and an inspiration.

“It hadn’t occurred to me at all,” she said. “Then I had so many people come up to me who said, ‘If you can do it, I can do it.’”

The best thing about going back was her son, who is 43 and works at Fort Lee as a certified Microsoft engineer, was able to help her remotely when she was struggling. He had her look at problems from a different perspective.

“He’s very calm and patient with me,” she said. “I wish he could be in my ear for tests, but that doesn’t work.”

Hanlin and Jones both said Michaels’ quest for learning was apparent from day one.

“Before I had her as a student, she was in the library all the time, as well,” Hanlin said. “She was willing to reach out to the resources available to her for help. She would go to tutoring if she needed tutoring. She would go to the librarian if she needed research. She would go to teachers if she needed some clarification. As a student, I think that’s what, as well, really stood out to me, just the willingness to reach out for help or ask those questions that were necessary in order to succeed.”

Jones echoed that.

“We had quite a few conversations,” he said. “She’d ask for help. She was not hesitant to say, ‘Can we get online and go over these activities?’”

In addition to her thirst for knowledge, Michaels took an interest in her professors and fellow students.

“I think as a student she really exhibited a caring curiosity for her classmates and her teachers,” Hanlin said. “She wanted to know more about me as a person … not in a private sort of way, but she was curious.”

Hanlin noted that in discussion board posts, Michaels often posed questions to her classmates “that indicated she wanted to know more about people in general. I think that, as well, just stood out to me.”

Michaels is very active in her church, which explains her interest in religious studies at W&M. She admits it would have bothered if she never earned a degree. She also knows her route wasn’t conventional. However, it was something she said she had to do for herself, even if it wasn’t always easy to explain.

A professor once asked her why she was in college since she wasn’t planning on coming out of retirement. Her reply was that she never got a degree. He responded, “But why are you here?”

“I said I don’t think you’re every going to understand it,” she said. “Some people do, some people don’t.”