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Champion of Adult Excellence in Learning: Tony Hooker of Parkland College on Responsibly Recruiting Adult Students

Posted by Scott Campbell

Topics: Workforce Development, Adult Student Success, Adult Learning, Employee Training, Student Stories, Skills Gap, college recruiting

For this “interview style” blog, CAEL met with Tony Hooker, an adult learning advisor for Parkland College. The following is a summary of our conversation.

If there’s a career fair, a parade, or even a barbecue in the Champaign-Urbana, Illinois area, there’s a good chance Tony Hooker will be there. But he’s not on-hand to judge the quality of chicken wings (at least that’s not the primary reason he’s there). Instead, the Parkland College adult re-entry admissions and records advisor is out to champion continuing education and lifelong learning. And he’s found that one of the best ways to do that is to share his message as directly as possible with adults who, for any number of reasons, are unemployed, underemployed, or just seeking to take the next step in their careers.

Tony wants to be there to help them make that leap, and he believes it starts by spreading the word. “I will fly the Parkland flag anywhere I think someone will salute it,” he says.

So Tony cold-calls factories and manufacturing facilities to share the news of his school’s opportunities for those workers. He makes it a point to visit as many community events as he can to cement Parkland’s place as a valuable community resource for students of any age.

It’s what he calls “a combination of recruiting and outreach” meant to keep the community college of about 8,000 students top of mind for adults who are ready to go back to school. Tony refers to that group as “contemporary” students -- adults with families, full-time jobs, and all of the responsibilities that come with life in the “real world.” According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are a lot of them. It reports that nearly three quarters of undergraduates possess at least one of those “real world” characteristics. These include “being independent for financial aid purposes, having one or more dependents, being a single caregiver, not having a traditional high school diploma, delaying postsecondary enrollment, attending school part time, and being employed full time.”[1]

Tony’s uniquely suited to being a messenger to these “nontraditional” students because he was once in a place in life quite similar to that of so many of the prospective students he meets at community events.

“I spent six years in the navy, swinging a hammer, closing the bars, and being one of those guys,” said the married father of four (three of whom are in college). “Then I met a little brown-haired girl and decided she deserved better.”

Tony was 28 when he enrolled at Parkland College. In the three decades since, he’s worked to help other adults pursue their educational and career dreams by standing beside and behind them, hoping to spur them on to greater things.

It’s not about numbers or metrics for Tony Hooker. After any of the career fairs where he interacts with many adults, he understands that only a handful may wind up enrolled at Parkland. Instead it’s about helping those who do begin their studies in Champaign. And he does that by pushing them toward their own measures of success.

Hooker estimates about half of the students at Parkland are contemporary students, which he describes as “anyone who’s not 18 to 22.” Around 35 percent are age 25 or older. For those adults, Tony believes the stars have to properly align for them to make a commitment to returning to school.

“Adult learners are going to come to school when everything is right -- when the money’s right, the family situation is right, when the employee situation is right,” Hooker said. “My biggest challenge is creating that urgency to make it happen faster.”

With that in mind, Tony is willing to go the extra mile for his students by making himself accessible in his office or over the phone, and not always just during his scheduled office hours.

Need to vent a little? Tony’s glad to listen. Want to share a great accomplishment? Again, Tony’s your guy.

Hooker describes himself as a constant cheerleader for Parkland students, and he’s more than happy to give advice when needed, or just to lend a caring ear.

Authentic and genuine in his appreciation for his students, Tony tries to encourage them while also tempering their enthusiasm just enough to prevent them from becoming overwhelmed. Tony knows how to strike that delicate balance between living life, handling the pressures of work, and excelling in the classroom all at the same time.

It‘s a juggling act, to be sure, but Hooker hopes his advocacy will help see students through to success. After all, it’s a marathon, not a sprint to the finish line.

“I love your enthusiasm, but let’s ease into this because, ultimately, I want you to succeed,” Tony reminds his students.

Hooker’s advocacy is at the heart of several practices that are proven to help adult learners find that success.

Cold-calling factories and asking staff to share Parkland’s opportunities isn’t always an easy sell. After all, these facilities depend on the hard-working men and women employed there. There can be a bit of pushback from managers who are afraid that educational opportunities will lead to an employee exodus, and the last thing they want is for a dependable employee to head for the door.

Hooker understands that line of thinking, but he backs up his pitch with statistics that show employees are actually more likely to stay with a company that offers learning opportunities.

Tuition reimbursement and flexible schedules designed to help busy adults attend classes outside of traditional times are work perks that can be used to sell a job to new applicants. They also give current employees more motivation to stay with their company.

In fact, a recent survey shows that more than one out of three workers indicate they will leave their company unless offered the opportunity to learn new skills.[2] Another report finds that more than three quarters would find employment more desirable at a company that offered upskill training.[3]

When those adults do decide to go back to school, they’ll find that many community colleges have developed unique ways to help make the process as easy and efficient as possible. Parkland College, for instance, has a daycare on campus. Tony said financial, mental health, and academic counseling are all available to students as well. They’re trying to cover as many bases as possible to help knock down the barriers that keep adults from reaching their educational and employment goals.

And if that means serving as a judge at a community barbecue in order to cross paths with a future Parkland student, Tony’s more than willing to do it.

Because, in the end, Tony Hooker believes in the men and women he hopes will one day enroll at Parkland College. And for many people worried about finding a way to balance work and life, that support can make all the difference.

“If I could hang my hat on one thing,” Tony said, “It’s that I wanted my students to know that I genuinely cared and that I did what I could to help them succeed.”

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[1] https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2015/2015025.pdf

[2] https://www.hrdive.com/news/workers-afraid-to-ask-for-training-for-fear-of-appearing-incompetent/553776/

[3] http://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2019/08/22/1905449/0/en/Axonify-Releases-Third-Annual-State-of-Frontline-Workplace-Training-Study.html