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What if the Only Thing Missing in Your Adult Learner Program is Adult Learners?

Adult learner advocates would probably agree that an office bearing a sign that includes “adult students” is, well, a good sign. Sure enough, the Office of Adult Students and Evening Services (OASES) at UNC Charlotte is home to a multi-award-winning adult learner completion initiative for adult learners. The 49er Finish Program is just one of many successful resources OASES hosts for adult learners. UNC Charlotte is part of the University of North Carolina System, a CAEL institutional member.

But as advocates of adult learning will also tell you, adult students, despite disparate schedules and multiple demands on their time, maintain a strong sense of community. Most are happy to share their "real world" perspectives, grounded in prior learning and experience, for the benefit of classmates of all ages. At the same time, as recent CAEL research has shown, adult learners also value connecting with each other. Without those connections, they themselves can be an ironic missing link in the otherwise-optimized programs designed around them.

Fortunately, OASES was attuned to that need for community. "Feedback from adult students showed a yearning for a sense of belonging and connectedness to other adult learners on campus," said Alison Mackie, an academic advisor with OASES. But it can be challenging to foster that culture on large campuses like UNC Charlotte’s.

So when a mini-grant became available through Transition and Success Initiatives, part of UNC Charlotte's Division of Student Affairs, Mackie and her colleagues saw an opportunity. In 2021, after being awarded new-program grant funding, OASES launched the Adult Student Ambassador Program on a one-year pilot basis.

OASES had long hosted in-person and virtual events geared to adult learners. Still, resonating with adult learners, who comprise 10 to 15% of UNC Charlotte’s student population, amid an extensive enrollment environment, can be difficult.

"What we were excited about when we formed the Ambassador Program was that instead of it being OASES staff members leading adult learner events, there were going to be actual adult students informing us of what type of events they wanted, and be the faces and the leaders of those events," said Mackie.

For example, Adult Student Ambassadors staffed kickoff events in the fall and spring for new students. The Ambassadors welcomed incoming adult learners and gave them the inside scoop about OASES offerings and other campus resources, like career and veteran services. They even handed out swag.

A particularly effective role for Ambassadors has been story panels, said Mackie. "Student stories seem to be something that really lands well with other adult students, they just want to hear somebody else relate their experiences." During the virtual events, Ambassadors detail their academic journeys, what they are pursuing at UNC Charlotte, and the keys to their success.

Often, adult learners need to witness their peers benefiting from those success factors to feel included, said Mackie. "They don't necessarily feel like the services and resources are available to them, although they are absolutely available to them and even targeted toward them. Walking into a tutoring center, with people who aren't your age, or maybe don't have kids beside them, doesn't feel as comfortable. Connecting with other adult students who use these services is super meaningful. It tells them that without a doubt, this place and these programs are for them."

On the other hand, the growing diversity of the adult learner population has prompted an ironic pivot in perspective back to "traditional" student needs. UNC Charlotte counts many true freshmen among its adult learners. While staying mindful that student schedules may be fraught with external obligations, OASES is also determined to make a wealth of university-based events available to adult learners who can participate in them.

More and more of them do. "These are students who have never been to college and may be separating from the military, or may have gotten a late start because they worked first," said Mackie. "So we're not just catering to adult students who are working with families or older students who are looking for that next career phase. We're also catering to this group of students looking for some of those really traditional experiences. "

The Ambassadors lend a "nontraditional" face to those traditional experiences. "It's really just about making sure that adults can experience some of the same things traditional students want," said Mackie. "These are times to get together, see one another, and connect."

Any adult student (24 or older) in good academic standing can join the Ambassador program. They complete a training session and agree to participate for at least two semesters.

The program application offers a choice of four focus areas: providing a sense of belonging, networking and leadership, meeting other adult students, and assisting with planning events. More than half of the applicants joined because they wanted to help other adult students, Mackie said.

Knowing that taking on yet another responsibility can be a challenge, OASES only asks Ambassadors to commit to two events (online or in-person) during their one-year tenure. "We want as many people to say, 'Yes, we want to be involved,' as possible, and we'll try to figure out where they can fit,” said Mackie.

It turns out many more found a way to fit the program in their schedules than Mackie had anticipated. When launching the pilot, she was hoping for 10 to 15 volunteers per semester. Today, she has about 45 Ambassadors.

That resounding response helped promote the program from pilot to permanent status. OASES is ensuring its impact extends beyond the students the Ambassadors serve today and generates systemic benefits. "We wanted to make sure that if we had this great group of adult students that we also elevated their desires and needs, and in terms of what it was that could help propel them to cross the graduation finish line," said Mackie of the Ambassadors’ suitability for functioning as an adult learner focus group.

OASES arranged meetings with the Ambassadors to identify the factors that were helping and hindering their progress toward degree completion. "We can say things all day long," said Mackie. "But when you have 45 students saying, 'These are all the things that are super helpful to us and these are things that keep me from graduating, that's really impactful, too.'"

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