Closely-knit cohorts help adult degree students make it through demanding programs.
By Scott A. Thompson
Director of Communications
Having worked for three major multinational corporations in the last decade, LaJames Wilson ’13 didn’t have a problem landing good jobs or earning promotions. But surviving layoffs without a college degree? That was another story.
“I’d get hired for one thing and in six months I’d be promoted and layoffs would come and they would keep the people with degrees,” said Wilson, an Army veteran whose six years of service included a stint in Bosnia. “I started to recognize a cycle after ten years . . . Getting in the door and staying on a career path are two entirely different things.”
After losing his last job as a project manager with wind turbine giant Vestas, despite having seniority over employees who stayed, Wilson said enough was enough. It was time to go back to school. So at age 36, he started in Warner Pacific’s Adult Degree Program earlier this year. He said the transition was a smooth one, particularly with the support of staff and fellow students.
“It’s been pleasantly surprising in as much as we all have very different backgrounds and we still manage to come together,” said Wilson. “If you are going to be in class with people for four hours and talk about where you’re coming [from] and why you are trying to succeed – it could have been a deal breaker for me but it hasn’t. It’s been a pleasant surprise.”
Supporting lives in transition
Wilson’s experience is common among adult learners at Warner Pacific. Most are embarking on an educational journey that was previously interrupted or deferred, and ADP is providing them with a built in support system from start to finish. Warner Pacific uses a cohort model in which between 16 and 24 students meet one night a week for 18 months or more, depending on their specific course of study. Courses last five weeks at the undergraduate level, a little longer for graduate students.
The use of cohorts builds on established theories of adult education that show peer-to-peer learning is important with adults, given the life and professional work experience typically represented in a particular classroom. Plus, the sense of camaraderie that cohorts foster helps adults navigate the challenges of adding full-time schooling to already busy work and family lives. “I still think it is the most effective model for adults,” said Dr. Toni Pauls, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Adult Degree Program. “In many cases, the students that we are targeting are coming back to school because they are in some type of transition in their life. It could be that they’re changing jobs. It could be their marriage of 20 years has dissolved and they are a single parent and having to support themselves and their family, but they are in some type of transition. So I think the support that comes with a cohort model is important.”
While individual students are graded on their own personal assignments, group work is a significant part of the learning process at ADP. Within each cohort, students will divide into smaller learning teams to produce at least one professional presentation for each course. At the associate’s level, students switch learning teams three times in the first 30 weeks, then self-select permanent teams for the remainder of the program. At the bachelor’s level, permanent teams emerge after 20 weeks. For graduate students, learning teams are set from day one.
“It’s a reality of our world,” said Megan Enos, Director of Academic Counseling at ADP. “If you look at Fortune 500 companies, they always say among the top five things they’re looking for are people who can work in teams. It’s really a significant strength of our program. ”
Skeptic turned convert
James Broadous ’09 knew plenty about teams when he enrolled in ADP’s bachelor of Human Development program in 2007. He ran an after-school program at Portland’s Jefferson High School as an employee with the nonprofit organization Self Enhancement Inc., and also coached J.V. basketball at Grant High School. However, he admits to being leery of the idea that part of his grade would depend upon the efforts of fellow students – that is until he met his ADP cohort.
“The learning team experience was awesome,” said Broadous, who now is the program director for Elevate Oregon, a mentorship program at Portland’s Parkrose High School.
Broadous was part of a five-member learning team whose members got along so well, they started calling themselves “super friends.” They each had distinct skills to bring to each project, such as writing, computer skills, and project management. The only challenge was finding time to meet outside of class for projects.
“We were able to handle a lot through e-mail and meet before class and touch up whatever it was we needed to touch up,” he said. “We worked so well together, we were able to cover for each other if someone wasn’t able to make it.”
Like a family
Another proponent of the cohort / learning team model is former Army specialist Nycole Seagraves ’09. Seagraves served five years in the U.S. Army, including a 13-month tour in Iraq, and was the youngest member of her cohort in the associate’s of organizational dynamics program at age 26. She initially wasn’t sure how she would fit in, but says her cohort bonded quickly.
“It was like a second family,” she said. “Every time I went to class, I felt like I was going home. I really enjoyed the fact that I was surrounded by people that had a wealth of knowledge that didn’t come from books…[W]e all were really close and we helped each other through the program.”
Pauls doesn’t pretend that all cohorts will find that perfect chemistry, but she has a staff of five academic counselors in place to work with individual students and to serve as mediators if given students in a cohort struggle.
“The cohort model can be a challenge if you have students who wish they weren’t together,” said Pauls. “We have intentionally created this model with the academic advisors … because our students needed somewhere to connect throughout their program. Our advisors not only shepherd students through the academic piece, they also stay attuned with what is going on in their personal lives.”
Friends of long-standing
ADP academic counselor Christine Tokonitz ’08, ’10 (MMOL) tells students that cohorts will go through growing pains, but the results are relationships that are deep and well-tempered. Tokonitz spent just over four years in ADP, starting in the associate’s program and finishing with her master of science in management and organizational leadership in August. Now as an academic counselor on staff, she can tell her students with confidence that there will be rewards of being a part of a cohort that can last well into the future.
“These are the people you’re going to be with for 18 months,” she said. “They know the good about you and the bad about you, but they accept you, nonetheless. There was one woman who I thought I never wanted on my learning team, but she has become my lifelong friend. I never would have done that had I not gotten to know her. I tell my students, ‘You will be surprised at the richness in the room.’”