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Graduates prove there's no timeline to getting a degree

Maryann Monno, 53, of Levittown, and Michel Paraisy,

Maryann Monno, 53, of Levittown, and Michel Paraisy, 54, of Hempstead, stand inside one of the classrooms at Nassau Community College. The two forged a friendship over the last two years while studying nursing. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

During more than four decades as a professional nurse, Roberta Levesque had always been intrigued by the business side of the health care industry. So five years ago, Levesque went back to school for the third time, enrolling in the MBA program at St. Joseph’s College, in Patchogue, where she had earned her bachelor’s degree.

Taking one three-credit course per semester, Levesque had maintained a 3.8 grade-point average by the time she turned in her final term paper to complete her degree requirements on Dec. 4.

“It feels good, but I’m a little shocked because it feels like I have been going to school forever,” said Levesque, 62, of Patchogue, a manager of the palliative care program at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown. Growing up in Syosset, she took her first nursing classes at Nassau BOCES and has earned more than 160 college credits while working first as a licensed practical nurse, then a registered nurse. “I’ve been a clinical nurse for a very long time, and it [the MBA program] has really opened my eyes to how hospitals function,” she said.

Although the ceremonial graduation day isn’t until May at the NYCB Live's Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, Levesque’s husband, Bill, arranged a more immediate laurel, greeting her with a dozen long-stem red roses as she came through the door after her last class.

Levesque’s new credential should prove useful for post-retirement consulting work, she said. But it’s also “more of an accomplishment for myself,” she said, “because no other person in my family, except my two children, is college educated.”

Colleges and universities have historically attracted older adults to mentoring, continuing education and certificate programs, but pre- or post-retirees also pursue associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Although studying alongside tech-savvy millennials can be stressful, campuses have changed since baby boomer college days and it can take many years to get a diploma, the results can be rewarding — both ego- and salary-wise. Adding a degree can help jump-start a second career, stay competitive (and relevant) in the workforce or meet a longtime educational goal building on a lifetime of experience, according to educational experts.

DEGREE DELAYED

Anthony Rondello, 73, who grew up in North Massapequa and graduated in 1963 from Farmingdale High School, took more than 50 years to complete a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

Rondello, who retired in 2003 after a career as a special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, had attended Hofstra University from 1963 to 1967 but interrupted his studies to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Three years ago, Rondello’s children, themselves college graduates, convinced him to take up where he had left off.

Hofstra officials worked out a plan for Rondello to take six credits at colleges near his current home in Venice, Florida, with occasional trips to Hofstra to meet his adviser. A senior paper called “Ageism in America” helped him earn an “A” in his advanced sociology seminar — “I was the only student in class,” Rondello quipped — and a place at Hofstra’s December 2018 graduation. Rondello opted to wait another six months, he said, to enjoy the “the pomp and circumstance” of last May’s commencement exercises.

“I’m feeling elated, and it’s certainly an accomplishment that was a long time in coming. You never know what’s around the corner,” Rondello said by telephone from his home in Florida.

VARYING MOTIVATIONS

Eileen White Jahn, interim executive dean of St. Joseph’s Long Island campus, said that many of the school’s adult students have been inspired to earn a degree after helping their own children get through school.

“In the graduate programs they often want workplace advancement, but in my MBA class this fall, I have two students in their 50s who hope to pursue their passions with consulting or founding nonprofits,” said Jahn, who is also a faculty member.

About 2% of St. Joseph’s current 3,983 undergraduate enrollment and 8% of 1,161 graduate students are age 50 or older, according to college records. Jahn said that most of St. Joseph’s older students are enrolled in its MBA programs or undergraduate studies in organizational management, nursing, general studies and human services.

Mature students matriculate “not just for simple retraining or retooling, but are really going back for degrees so they can pivot into another profession,” said Corinne Kyriacou, a Hofstra associate professor of public health.

Their goals often include “pursuing a passion career, studying something they always wanted to explore, and for family or for other reasons weren’t able to pursue earlier,” Kyriacou explained.

A passion for learning inspired Dennis C. Curran, 60, of Shoreham, to enroll a decade ago at Suffolk County Community College.

“I honestly wanted to see if I could learn something again,” said Curran, a U.S. Army veteran who was worried about the effect of a head injury suffered while serving during the early years of the war in Iraq.

Attending part-time, Curran has flourished in a learning environment far different from Comsewogue High School in Port Jefferson Station where he was a member of the class of 1977.

“Everything has changed from when we were young and went to school,” he said. “I love the openness that they can just be themselves,” he said about his fellow undergraduates. (With the exception of their cellphone use in class, which he considers “disrespectful.”)

Curran still likes being a 60-something undergraduate enough that he is transferring to St. Joseph’s to pursue a bachelor’s degree after he completes the last course next semester for an associate’s degree in liberal arts.

Currently 9% of community college students nationwide are over 40, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington, D.C.

Much has changed since many older folks were last in a learning environment “The focus, especially in the last few years has been on student success,” Parham said, “so there are quite a number of support services for students that perhaps didn’t exist” years ago. Among the innovations on community college campuses, she said, are food pantries, student housing on campus, mental health and such career services as resume building and coaching on soft skills, like communication and sociability.

"Mature students tend to bring certain life skills and work experiences that position them to balance competing demands, manage stress more effectively and respond to critical issues with a higher level of insight," said Kenya V. Beard, dean of Nursing and Health Sciences at Nassau Community College.

FORGING A FRIENDSHIP

This fall’s Nassau Community College graduates include at least two nontraditional age students who have thrived amid much younger classmates. Maryann Monno, 53, of Levittown, and Michel Paraisy, 54, of Hempstead expect to graduate this week from the college’s associate in science in nursing program.

“I always wanted to be a nurse when I was younger, but I didn’t know anything about financial aid, so my parents couldn’t afford college,” said Monno, a former NYPD police lieutenant who retired in 2011 after 20 years on the job. She grew up in Astoria, Queens, and moved to Long Island when she got married.

During the two-year-program, which involved classroom study and clinical training at area hospitals, Monno made a new friend: Paraisy, who immigrated from Haiti to the United States in 1991. A former professional welder, Paraisy had obtained a certified nursing assistant license and has been working in the field, but he wanted to increase his earning power.

“I had more ambition,” said Paraisy, who is divorced and raising his two sons as a single parent.

Provided they pass their finals two days before,just Monno and Paraisy will line up for the annual NCC registered nurse pinning ceremony on Dec. 19. Their professors will affix a pin to their lapels, signifying completion of the nursing program. They still have to study and pass the licensing exams.

“I’m very happy about it, but it feels like it’s like one of the hardest accomplishments in my life,” Paraisy said.

“It’s kind of a relief that school is over because it was a very stressful, intense program, and very time consuming,” Monno agreed.

Monno added that after two years of missed holidays and rarely a spare moment, she’s pledged to spend more time with her two children. Said Monno: “I promised my family that I’d never go to school again.”

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