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CAEL Pathways Blog

Adult Student Success Story:Susan Fenwick

These days, adult learners have a lot on their plates! Whether it's supporting a family, working, transitioning from a displaced occupation, or all of the above, there is a lot of competition for their limited time. How do they stay motivated? Finding the right program, institution, and pathway is critical - not just for them, but for the communities they live and work in. Our social fabric depends on the success of working adult learners. There is a lot to be learned from their stories.

Susan's Educational Journey: Returning to Education After a Long Break 
Susan Fenwick is the customer care operations and HR manager for a franchisee owner/operator of 10 McDonald's restaurants in western Washington State. Her educational journey was sparked by her company's tuition assistance program, Archways to Opportunity, which has led her to career success and personal fulfillment. Employer support in terms of financial support and personalized guidance tipped the scales for her. Since going back she has received her high school diploma and bachelor's degree.

The sense of accomplishment, it's amazing. I'm so glad that I did it. Like I said, it's helped me in my current job now. I used to be the person that would stand against the wall while the conversation was happening in the room because I felt like I didn't have the knowledge or the know-how to be involved in that conversation. But now, I'm more than happy to step in and be a part of the conversation. That goes with work, with community, with friends and groups. It has boosted my confidence level greatly.

When Susan was 17, she walked out of high school four months prior to graduation because she was so far behind in credits.  Her life responsibilities-paying the rent and supporting herself and her siblings-had to take precedence over school. She remembers, 'Work just became the priority over school. It just got overwhelming and I walked out. I regretted that decision every day of my life thereafter.'

As the years passed and she started a family, her focus shifted to her children and making sure that they had a good education while she continued working. She explained, 'It wasn't about me and my education, it was about them and making sure that they got a good education. I knew how important education was.'

Even though she recognized the value of a good education, she didn't take the step to further her own until she learned about what was offered by McDonald's Archways to Opportunity program. That got her attention. She remembers after hearing that she could get her high school diploma rather than a GED, 'That stirred up something in me that I can do this. I can get this thing that always I regretted not getting, that I can have an opportunity to go after it. So I did it. As soon as I did it, I immediately then signed up for the tuition assistance to go to college and get a degree. I was just stoked, I was excited, but I was also very nervous. Would I be able to live up to it? Would I be able to learn? It had been over 35 years since I had been in school.'

Making Choices and Navigating College Coursework
Even after making the decision to go back to school, Susan remembers facing a lot of options with respect to her program of study.  'I didn't know what to do,' she said, 'I had this opportunity in front of me but I had no idea how to navigate higher education. I didn't know what degree to try to get. I have worked for McDonald's since I was 15 years old. That's the only thing I've ever done.'

She knew that she liked working with people and wanted to build on her role working for her McDonald's franchise on the administrative side of the business. She turned to the academic advisors for assistance in charting her path, explaining, 'They're the ones that helped me decide this would be great for my new role or if I wanted to use it moving forward to advance my career later on with somebody else. It turned out to be a pretty good deal. I got my degree, a bachelor degree in business administration with a concentration in office management." 

Accessing Adult Learner Support at Her Institution
Throughout her studies, Susan tapped into the support network offered by her institution.  'I think I was very fortunate in the professors and the support system I had, but it started with the advisor. The advisor was the one that really explained to me what was going to happen and how it was going to happen. They checked in with me in the beginning twice a week through phone calls and emails. They were celebrating my successes. That gave me the motivation to go, 'Yes, I can do this.' Had I not had that, there were a few times when it would have been pretty easy to give up.'

Putting Her Degree to Use
Susan reports that she is currently putting her degree to use every single day.  She applauds her boss for supporting her and her career growth. 'I came from making burgers, shakes and fries every day. I didn't even know how to open Excel, much less make a spreadsheet. My boss, he really took a chance on me and put me in this position and let me do things. When I first took the position, it was to answer phones, take complaints, document them, and share feedback with our managers on how we can do this better. It went from that to now managing the whole HR system in our organization. I'm talking payroll and L&I [Washington State Department of Labor & Industries claims], and insurance claims, everything. Had I not gone to school and gotten that degree, I would not have known how to do that. I might have been able to learn it maybe through experience, life experience, but it would have been a lot of trial and error and a lot of frustration probably as well. 

Employer and Student Commitment Fuels Success
Her employer-supported education program expanded her career options dramatically.  'I'm super proud and excited that I had that opportunity and eternally grateful to McDonald's, Archways and the whole system for the doors that have opened up for me since then. I never thought that I would be able to get a degree. I have seven sisters and two brothers, and I am one of two out of all of them that have had any college education even thus far at age 52. I'm very proud of it. It was hard; it was a rough road but I did it.' 

Susan's experience can offer insight for other adults considering furthering their education. 'I would say to other adult learners, the support is there and it's not scary. Once you get started and you get rolling, it's so doable. I had more fun learning about history and even math, than I ever would have had when I was in high school because I didn't care about that stuff when I was in high school. When I was 16, 17 years-old, it didn't mean that much to me. I had to do it because I had to get a grade. Now, this time around, it was interesting which made it fun. I mean, all around, it just made everything better for me, my life, my outlook on life and my confidence level.'

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