- Associated Press - Saturday, November 14, 2015

CRYSTAL LAKE, Ill. (AP) - At least a few times a week, Aurelija Bieksaite finds herself staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning just to get her homework done.

The Lake in the Hills resident is enrolled in McHenry County College’s nursing program, but she’s also a mother to two young children.

“My passion was always health,” she said. “I was just interested in (it) since my childhood.”

But when Bieksaite’s father had a stroke five years ago and she saw the work all his doctors, nurses and physical therapists did for him, her decision to return to college and pursue a career in health care crystallized.

Bieksaite is like the vast majority of college undergraduates in that she is considered a nontraditional student, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Nontraditional students can have dependents, be single caregivers, have delayed their college enrollment, not have a traditional high school diploma, be employed full time or attend school part time.

McHenry County College, however, tends to have fewer nontraditional students as a percentage of its enrollment compared to other community colleges, said Tony Miksa, the college’s vice president of academic and student affairs.

About 25 percent of students enrolled in credit-earning courses at MCC this fall are 25 years or older, according to statistics provided by spokeswoman Donna Bieschke, who noted those numbers do not include the college’s noncredit-earning adult education program.

And although it may take older students longer to finish their degrees or certificates, 40.9 percent of degrees and certificates awarded last school year were to nontraditional students, she said.

This round at MCC is the fourth or fifth attempt at going back to school for manufacturing management student Russell Tabaka.

Between his work in industrial equipment, his coaching and training as a mixed martial arts fighter and raising a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old with his wife of nearly five years, scheduling his coursework and then finding time to do the homework was a struggle.

“It wasn’t even a five-year plan. It was like a 12-year plan,” the Island Lake resident said.

Then he was pointed to MCC’s Fast Track program where some classes run in eight-week stretches instead of 16 weeks and some use a blended format, combining in-class time with online portions.

McHenry County College tries to make its schedule accommodating for adult learners by offering classes that meet at night or on weekends, or just one day a week, Miksa said.

Online courses also have made it easier for students who can’t make it to campus, he said, pointing to the college’s completely online criminal justice program.

Scheduling still can be tough, especially the further along in a program one gets, said Lorrie Janeczko, a Crystal Lake pharmacy student who decided to go back to school now that her kids are older.

“It’s harder than you think, and it’s easier than you think,” she said. “The things that I thought would be easy ended up being difficult, and the things I thought would be difficult would be easy. The learning part is a lot easier than I thought, but the scheduling is harder than I thought.”

Before she went back to college, Janeczko said she never knew how many resources are available.

The college offers free tutoring at the Sage Learning Center and on-campus child care - although Bieksaite, who has some classes that run until 10 p.m., a husband who often works late and a mother-in-law who serves as her primary child care, wishes the hours were more flexible.

The college reaches out to adult students when they register, and through special seminars, to make sure they learn about these resources, Miksa said, adding the college hopes to create an adult learning center to provide “more of an integrated approach to adult learners” and give adult students a place to be around other students like them.

And although adult learners tend to come across students recently out of high school in their general education classes, programs such as Tabaka’s manufacturing management and Bieksaite’s nursing tend to attract older students.

“It was weird in the beginning,” Bieksaite said. “You see all those young kids, and they remember everything right away. You sometimes felt stupid. … With time, I just got used to being here. I feel like this is my second home.”

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Source: The (Crystal Lake) Northwest Herald, http://bit.ly/1khxf03

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Information from: The Northwest Herald, http://www.nwherald.com

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