When Patsy Spencer of Collins Center started class Sept. 2, her sister offered to come over and take a first-day-of-school photo for her scrapbook, as Spencer says, "with my little bookbag."
The 55-year-old turned down the humorous offer, but it might be appropriate to memorialize this new chapter of her life: Spencer is now a full-time student for the first time in more than 30 years.
A few days after she started classes at Erie Community College to work in a medical office, she was settling in comfortably. "Nobody has asked me where anything is, or whether I'm the teacher," she said, chuckling. "I feel like I am accepted."
In fact, she's more than accepted. Spencer is a trend-setter.
Whether they are driven there by the current economic situation, or deep dissatisfaction with a longtime career, adults are no longer an unusual sight in college classrooms. At ECC this semester, while the vast majority of students -- some 10,063 -- are 25 or younger, some 2,869 students are between 26 and 39; another 1,021 are between 40 and 50; 322 are 51 to 60, and 31 students are 61 or older. The oldest student is 76.
Some of the older students, like Spencer, must make a change when their jobs are eliminated. Others train for one career and yet find themselves drawn to another. And some, because of a combination of events, find themselves completing a college education they didn't pursue when they were in their 20s.
Some follow their dreams, but for Spencer, choosing work in a medical field was strictly pragmatic. After graduating from high school, she took some classes at a business college, then "took a job with Motorola and that's where I stayed."
She worked for Motorola in Elma for more than 30 years, staying on after the factory was purchased by the German company, Continental Automotive. She was working as a buyer when the German firm closed the plant in 2007, sending 300 jobs to Asia.
Spencer looked for work, but couldn't find the right fit. At a job fair run by Erie Community College's One Stop Center in Orchard Park, Spencer says, "I talked to a woman from Catholic Health about what sorts of jobs were available, and she said, 'I'm going to tell you this: Go back to school. Go into the medical field, be a medical coder, medical biller, medical insurance. We are always looking for those people.'
"I was apprehensive at first, but now I'm getting into the schooling and finding it interesting," says Spencer. She has a full schedule, taking classes in keyboarding, anatomy and physiology, medical law and ethics, medical language, and working as an administrative assistant. And when she looks around the room, she sees she's not the only student over 50.
"There are so many older people in my classes," she says.
>A new start
Chris Jaskowiak had an epiphany at a very inconvenient moment.
He was a semester away from graduating from Canisius College with a degree in marketing in 2002, when he thought about teaching.
"Teaching was always in the back of my mind, and history was something I always enjoyed, and I thought, 'What a great job that would be,' " says Jaskowiak, 36, of Buffalo. "But I thought, it's too late, that ship has sailed."
He spent a few years at a mortgage company in Philadelphia, until he and his wife Tami moved back to Western New York in 2004 because they didn't want to raise children so far away from family. Here, he worked for GEICO. "The money was great, but I didn't enjoy it," he says. "I felt like I had nothing at the end of the day."
The challenge was breaking the news to Tami. But after some discussion, they figured out a way to make it work.
He calls his return to school at Buffalo State College in August 2007 "the best thing I ever could have done." He already had his core courses completed and was able to dive right into education and history classes. "The thing that's great about Buffalo State's program is that you know right away whether teaching is right for you, because they get you right out into the field immediately," he says.
This May, after a heavy class schedule, he graduated and is looking for a permanent teaching job.
It wasn't a choice but a pink slip that put Antonio "Tony" Parisi of Hamburg in the classroom this fall for the first time in years.
"Twice, the rug has been pulled from under my feet," he says.
He spent nearly 30 years in factories, starting as a sweeper and rising to mill helper in a flour mill, then working briefly as an apprentice electrician "before the company was sold out to another company and we all got laid off." But he landed at Gibraltar Industries as a mill helper and worked there for 13 years before being laid off in January.
Through the 1990s, Parisi says, he'd taken classes "on and off" at ECC, but never completed his degree. This time, Parisi, 58 but nowhere near ready to retire, decided he needed a skill -- "something that I can carry with me everywhere I go."
His daughter Lauren had graduated from Trocaire College in 2005 as a registered nurse "with top honors," the proud dad points out. So he enrolled in the same program at the same school.
He's always been a hard worker, so he's not daunted by the coursework and hours of study he knows he will have to put in. "I have no choice, this is my swan song," he says simply. "I have no other choice."
>Watching the trend
Parisi will see plenty of people like himself in his classes, says Dr. Michael LaFever, the dean who oversees admissions at Trocaire College.
"Trocaire's student population has always been made up more of nontraditional students than young folks coming right out of high school," he says.
"However, this semester we are seeing more adult students who already have earned a degree and are making career changes."
These students include adults who have earned a liberal arts degree that doesn't provide any specific skill, people who have lost manufacturing jobs, and military veterans, LaFever says.
"By far, the most popular program for all of these students is nursing," he says. "Prospective students have really gotten the message that nurses are greatly needed."
Because Trocaire specializes in health care education, LaFever says, it attracts a lot of men who are changing professions in midcareer, whether through choice or necessity. "A lot of the men who were in manufacturing and service industries want to make the change to a different profession so they have a whole new set of skills," he says. "The men are looking for a safer career field for themselves. Many of our women students are coming right in to health care anyhow."
>Ready to soar
Thomas Lasenbery, 41, admits he wasted his early adulthood.
"I was in trouble a lot," says the Buffalo man. "I had gotten addicted to drugs, got myself back together. I was a wreck, basically. I got married once, and that ended terribly."
With only a GED that he'd gotten through the Job Corps in the 1980s, Lasenbery found himself "working little jobs here and there, and there wasn't any future in it."
When he entered ECC in January 2008 to become a mental health/substance abuse counselor, he says, "I was terrified! But then once I got there, I met other people who were in recovery [from addictions] and I leaned on a couple of them. I was always a good student in school -- I was just getting in trouble."
Now, Lasenbery says, "I'm Mr. Dependable. And I pride myself on my grades. I hate missing a class."
Lasenbery is two semesters from earning his degree, and looks forward to the day that his new profession will enable him to "give back to those who gave to me. I want to give somebody who wasn't as strong as I was a helping hand, or a shoulder to lean on."