Nontraditional students prove life can have 'second act'

Tamara Browning

Four people who are going back to school to be teachers, a lobbyist and a nurse are proving wrong novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s declaration that “There are no second acts in American lives.”

They’re showing, through education, that there is life after a job loss and changes of heart.

Single mother Shi Lynn Coleman left the restaurant and bar industries to earn a political science degree so she can lobby for not-for-profits. She said doing this sets an example for her 13-year-old daughter.

“It’s hard to explain to her why college is so important when myself wasn’t going and chose not to go,” said Coleman, the resident manager at the Springfield Ronald McDonald House.

Writer and educator George B. Leonard said: “To learn is to change. Education is a process that changes the learner.”

The students profiled here are changing.

Kevin Ford

Age: 55

Family: Son, Kevin Michael Ford; daughter, Rhea Ford; two grandchildren.

Goal: To become a middle school teacher

St. Louis native Kevin Ford looked to God and reflected on the example his earthly father set when Ford lost a lucrative job in 2004 as a senior project manager for a computer company.

At the time, Ford was based in Springfield. He had worked through the ranks to his position, much like his late father, Harold Ford, had done in his career with the federal government.

After losing his job, Kevin Ford sat down, took account of his life and figured out what about his former career inspired him, and what he was passionate about.

The next step was to get moving.

“My father used to say, ‘Son, you know, most people die in bed, so get your butt up out ...’” Ford said. “I’ve never been one to really sit very long and not do anything. I’m always pretty comfortable and confident in the fact that I’ll rebound.”

Ford said losing his job reinforced his need for God, causing him to realize he could either choose to see the situation in a negative way or as God preparing him “for something bigger and better.”

After a break doing volunteer work, Ford began studying in 2007 at Lincoln Land Community College to become a middle school teacher with an emphasis in mathematics. He plans to transfer later to the University of Illinois Springfield.

Ford is going to school through “Grow Your Own,” a teacher program that, among several other things, recruits for hard-to-staff schools and hard-to-fill positions. In exchange for paying for his schooling, Ford will teach for five years in Springfield’s District 186.

“The biggest challenge is going back to school at this age. The brain is not working like (it used to),” said Ford, who tutors students at Franklin Middle School through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Springfield’s 21st Century after-school program. He also tutors through a District 186 program that helps students achieve their goals of going to college.

“I’ve always enjoyed mathematics, but I guess more importantly is, I’ve always enjoyed being able to teach someone else about mathematics.”

Ford — whose mother, Shellie, was a teacher and principal in St. Louis, and whose sister, Bridget, teaches math in St. Louis — said he wants to be a great teacher.

“The best thing about math is the ‘aha’ moments, when you finally get it,” Ford said. “Those are so valuable in life because it means that somebody’s learning something new or they’re finally getting something (that’s challenged them).”

Ford, who is involved in community theater and is a worship team leader and choir director at Springfield Church of God, said he’s realizing that he is a teacher.

“All of the things that I guess I’ve done throughout my career in terms of mentoring — mentoring subordinates and things like that — I’ve come to realize that that’s teaching,” Ford said.

Janean Mays

Age: 33

Family: Husband, Allen, assistant vice president of facilities at Illinois College, Jacksonville; three children, Michaelene, 10; Austin, 8; and Zachary, 5.

Goal: To become an elementary school teacher

Janean Mays had already proven that she’s college material by graduating cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in social work in 1998 from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

But during her first semester at Illinois College in Jacksonville to earn an elementary education degree, she initially felt out of her element.

For one, she is a nontraditional student at IC, where only 30 students are over age 24 on a campus of 900 students this semester.

“I looked around, and I was so intimidated — all these kids in their early 20s, late teens, and I sit down,” Mays said. “I just remember the kids just kind of looking at me like, ‘Who the heck is this and why is she in our class?’”

She also isn’t technologically savvy. Many of her classmates are.

“(In) my one educational technologies class, we have to do a blog,” Mays said. “When (the teacher) said it, I was like, ‘What?’ She’s like, ‘Janean, you’ve never done a blog?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t even know what that is.’ ”

“ ... I can say I’m a complete dork now, and I’m OK with that. I don’t mind. I’m there to learn,” Mays said.

A stay-at-home mom for more than five years after moving to Jacksonville from southern Illinois, Mays has come full circle.

“Back whenever I was in school at SIU, I was an elementary education major, and I switched my major my junior year into social work. I’m coming full circle because I’ve just always loved children and love being around kids,” Mays said.

Her career has included working with the McDonough County Health Department, in nephrology social work at a dialysis facility, for a psychiatrist, in a hospital assisting senior citizens in social activities and doing public relations and marketing. She also did substitute teaching before going back to school.

She says her classmates are nice, open and helpful. Among her biggest challenges is time management — managing family, class, homework, housework and the like.

“I keep telling myself, ‘People do this all the time. People go back to school, have full-time jobs, have families, have kids.’ My husband says, ‘Yeah, but it’s different for everyone.’ It’s just such a huge change of pace, for me, after being home.”

Shi Lynn Coleman

Age: 32

Family: Daughter, Mica, 13

Goal: To earn a degree in political science

Once a straight-A high school student and volleyball team captain, Shi Lynn Coleman realized soon after dropping out in her junior year because she had “other things to do” that she needed at least a general equivalency diploma.

Now, at age 32, Coleman knows she needs a college degree to fulfill her passion of lobbying for not-for-profit agencies.

“I was pregnant at 18 … that really set in that I was so capable of a degree and knowing that I should at least have the GED. I should at least finish what I should have finished before I got pregnant,” Coleman said. “It was very important to obtain the GED before (my daughter) was born.”

It’s important for Coleman, who will graduate in May with an associate’s degree from Lincoln Land Community College, to complete a degree in political science from the University of Illinois Springfield. She wants to set an example for her 13-year-old daughter, Mica.

“I really used it as a motivator: ‘Look. Mom’s going to school. I’m making good grades to better my life,’ ” Coleman said. “That’s what you need to do when you get out of high school. There is no, ‘Do I or not go to college?’ It’s, ‘Yes. You do go to college at this point.’ ”

Currently the resident manager at the Springfield Ronald McDonald House, Coleman years ago worked for the state Department of Children & Family Services. She previously spent about 15 years working for restaurant and bar businesses. Although she made “fantastic” money, Coleman realized she couldn’t retire as a waitress.

“Just the big picture of the non-for-profit world. That’s something I believe in and I’m passionate about,” said Coleman, a member of AmeriCorps, a service program. “So, using the knowledge and schooling that I’m going to be able to gain by studying political science, how can I use that to lobby in government for agencies like Habitat (for Humanity), for agencies like Ronald McDonald?”

Today, life is good, Coleman said.

“Going back to school and networking and meeting the people that I’ve met within the community from these non-for-profit agencies really makes me want to be a better person,” Coleman said. “How I affect others’ lives helps me improve my own life and really keeps me determined, focused. Street smarts are great, but it’s about what’s on paper, and on paper, just having my GED isn’t very appeal-able, no matter how great a person I am.”

Jacque Saffell

Age: 29

Family: Daughter, Lydia, 8

Goal: To become a registered nurse

Jacque Saffell aspires to be a traveling nurse someday.

Saffell is getting some travel experience through living in Modesto and taking classes through Lincoln Land Community College locations in Springfield and Jacksonville.

Saffell has been attending LLCC for 3 1/2 years and plans to become a registered nurse.

Because of her goal, she gets a workout with school, work and raising her 8-year-old daughter, Lydia.

“It was what I always wanted to do. When I first had Lydia, obviously, I couldn’t. Then I was making the minimum pay as a (certified nursing assistant), and I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this? It’s time,’ ” Saffell said.

She doesn’t have the luxury of time. She works five nights a week at a bar and works two to three days a week at Passavant Area Hospital in Jacksonville. She recently applied at Barton W. Stone nursing facility in Jacksonville to pick up an extra day there.

“That’s why I work at the hospital there … to kind of keep in the nursing field. You learn a whole lot more,” Saffell said.

The hard work is “definitely worth it,” Saffell said, and she is working toward the “light at the end of the tunnel. It’s hard. If it wasn’t for my family, I couldn’t do it. I have a very good family,” Saffell said.

“My mom, (Barb Tallman), stays with me a whole lot. My mom’s single, so between her and my little sister, (Allison Tallman), they both stay with me.”

However, Saffell admitted that she feels guilty being away from her daughter so much.

For example, on a recent Tuesday morning, Saffell was at LLCC in Springfield after studying math the night before until 3 a.m. and getting up at 5 a.m. She wouldn’t get out of school until 4 p.m. Her mom would get off work and be at Saffell’s house by 5:30 p.m. to stay so Saffell could work until midnight.

“If I had to send her to a baby sitter every night, I would never work like I do … (it) makes things a lot easier with family,” Saffell said.

“If I would just kind of give in and move back home, I could, because it’s just my mom, then things could go a lot easier. But when you have your own house, (there’s) a feeling of you’re doing it. I like to know I’m able to do it.”

Tamara Browning can be reached at (217) 788-1534 ortamara.browning@sj-r.com.

WORDS OF WISDOM

Kevin Ford

--If you’ve been laid off, don’t spend too long muddling in your issue. Don’t panic, but accept it.

“The fact that it happened – it’s not reversible. It’s not something you can go back to.” 

* Do something you’re really passionate about.

Janean Mays

--Don’t feel intimidated when going back to school.

“Even though it’s a different environment, it’s a new change, it’s well worth it. If you’re dedicated to it and it’s something you really want to do, don’t be afraid to do it.”

Shi Lynn Coleman

--“Don’t be afraid to better yourself or your family, to put one foot forward and go at it strong. Life is what you make it. If you’re willing to change and better yourself, it’s a win-win situation.”

Jacque Saffell

--If you plan to go to school, do it early in life.

“I think that the younger you are, it’s a lot easier. Most of them should try to do it while they’re living at home, so they’re not trying to fully support themselves while they’re going to school.”

— Tamara Browning