Karen Henry’s palms left an imprint on her desk like a damp sponge. Her heart pounded a quick rhythm.
Three decades had slipped by since she last sat in a college lecture hall. Now, the 54 year-old mother of three sons glanced around inside one of UNC Charlotte’s classrooms and saw kids not much younger than her own. Their fidgetiness mirrored the same mix of nervousness and excitement she wrestled with inside. Like them, it felt like her first college class, too.
Restarting a college career after years away can be daunting.
While traditional college students can feel the warm hugs and support from the care packages their parents mail from home, nontraditional students, many who have recently sent their own children off to college, grapple with whether they can handle the world of textbooks and lectures again.
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“I kept wondering if I was making a mistake leaving my job to go back to school,” said Henry, who worked as a receptionist and raised a family in Mint Hill before returning to complete the degree she left unfinished in 1977.
For Henry, the boost of confidence she needed came in a gift from the Bernard Osher Foundation. More important than the $4,000 scholarship the foundation awarded her to finish her degree in finance, it gave her courage.
“It had an immediate impact on me,” said Henry after she learned she had won. “When I received the letter I knew I was doing the right thing completing my degree.”
For each of the past four years, the Bernard Osher Foundation has awarded $50,000, usually in $1,000 to $2,000 increments, to as many as 20 nontraditional UNCC students pursuing the college degrees that had been interrupted.
This year, in addition to another $50,000, the foundation has awarded the university a $1 million endowment to set up a permanent funding source for the scholarships.
Students who have had at least a five-year gap in their college education, are in good academic standing, and show a financial need, are eligible.
Bernard Osher, a well-known businessman and community leader in San Francisco, launched his namesake foundation in 1977.
Janet Daniel, UNCC’s director of the Office of Adult Studies and Evening Services, said the foundation’s partnership with the university is a perfect fit.
“We have a long history of serving nontraditional students,” said Daniel. “UNC Charlotte was founded to support veterans who were returning from World War II.”
About one-quarter of the students who attend UNC Charlotte are considered nontraditional, a term that can have different definitions at different universities.
“Here, nontraditional is not just a matter of age, it’s more of life circumstances,” said Daniel. “Those life circumstances often times include family responsibilities, work responsibilities, and household responsibilities.”
For Henry, who married during the spring break of her second year of college, the same year Osher began his foundation, “life kind of got into the way of going back to school.”
Now graduated with her degree and out in the workforce, Henry hopes others will check into the foundation’s reentry program at UNCC.
“I know that I am not the only nontraditional student to struggle with doubts about the time spent in completing a degree,” she said. “Receiving this scholarship was an incredible confirmation to all my efforts and a powerful incentive to continue with my studies.”