a new series – discussions on completion

Valencia was the inaugural winner of the 2011 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, cited as “the best community college in the nation.” The prize was based on measurable achievements in graduation rates, workforce placement and innovative programs.

Near the bottom of state funding per FTE (Full Time Equivalent) from among the state’s 28 community colleges, Valencia nevertheless achieves a graduation rate nearly three times the national average for similar institutions.

But how does that translate to students and what they experience at Valencia? There is an audience at Valencia that has a unique view on completion – those that are returning students. What can those that tried in the past teach us as they embark once again on their educational journey?

The response from students has been great and we will be sharing a few insights each month as part of this discussion.

While each story is unique, returning students seem to fall in two groups – those that started college in the past and stopped before attaining a certificate or degree and those that graduated from other programs, and came to Valencia to deepen their education.

Kyle Pietila is in the second group, attending and graduating from a culinary arts program in Minnesota in 1995 and the Disney culinary program in 1998. He is back to get his AA with hopes of becoming a culinary teacher. He chose Valencia because it has a good reputation and it is close to where he lives. He says as a returning student, “I am working full time and I am going to school and just trying to get back into the swing of things.”

Kimberly Chemente started down the path of a typical student. She began studying at Valencia in 1999 as a dual-enrollment student and then continued until 2002. Pressures felt from her young age and working full time led her to take a break from school. “And then life happened,” she says.

She relocated to Jacksonville in 2004, got married in 2007 and had her son in 2008. During this time, she felt her dreams for college slipping away. It was a job that brought her back on course, a recent position at Nemours Children’s Hospital that brought her back to Central Florida.

“Nemours takes education very seriously and part of my employment agreement was that I finish my schooling and degree.” After an 11-year break, she came back to Valencia in May of this year. She will receive her AA in May 2014 and then plans to continue her studies at UCF.

Valencia student Kimberly Chemente and her son

Valencia student Kimberly Chemente and her son

And it is the hope to be a role model to her son that drives her to succeed. “I want him to see that college is hard work but worth the time and effort.”

Marlene De Tour started her educational journey far from the Sunshine State, at Hastings Community College in Nebraska. She stopped attending when her daughter was born premature, “that changed everything,” she says. When her daughter was 18 months, they relocated to Florida.

She wanted to come back to school to push herself professionally and in order to do that she needed a degree. Marlene is very frank about the benefits of a degree, “I also want to make more money.” And like Kimberly, she hopes to be a good example for her child.

Her choice of Valencia was a pragmatic one, citing the partnership that allows for a two-year degree here and then transfer to UCF for a four-year degree. And expense was another factor, she found Valencia to be a more cost effective option.

Today she is a sophomore and she eventually hopes to get her bachelor’s degree in marketing.

I asked her what factors are important to make sure you complete your education at Valencia. “Since I am a single mom, financial aid and scholarships are important, as is cost of tuition, and having classes that meet my work schedule as I work from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. Plus I have a daughter in middle school so I need to be able to attend her activities from time to time.”

Her answer hit so many important facets and I’m sure echoes countless students juggling work, school and family and sometimes struggling for ways to pay for college. This series will continue to uncover what makes completion a reality for our returning students.

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