For many working adults, the COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst for career reassessment. In 2020, as countless employees were furloughed from their jobs or placed into new working environments, some workers were led to ponder: What other opportunities are out there? What else could I achieve if I had the skills, training or education?
For Holly Dodd, who lives in Windermere, this was the case.
Dodd, 33, was working as a musician, singing backup for the band Train and performing at corporate and similar events. Then, all her planned events were cancelled due to the coronavirus and suddenly she had a wide open schedule. During this newfound downtime, she considered finishing something she had started years ago – a college degree.
“I don’t think I ever really knew exactly what I wanted to go back to school for, so I never really had the drive to do it. And then with everything kind of shutdown, my job was non-existent,” Dodd says.
Dodd attended a college program for graphic designers shortly after graduating high school, but didn’t finish. When she found herself at home in the midst of the pandemic, she decided to finish what she started and enroll at a local college to earn a degree and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to secure funding.
“COVID kind of set things in motion,” Dodd says.
Adult Learners Head to College
Dodd is not alone in her recent return to school as a “nontraditional student,” a category broadly defined by educational institutions as learners who are age 25 or older who may have commitments that their fresh out-of-high-school peers do not have.
Valencia College, one of Central Florida’s local public colleges, had a 7.4% increase in enrollment for nontraditional students during the pandemic compared to the previous year, according to data provided by the college. The statistic includes just enrollees who are 25 years old or older and encompasses those who are attending college for the first time, transfer students and students who completed a degree at Valencia and have now re-enrolled to complete another program.
Nontraditional students face challenges that their peers may not. Many adult learners are parents. They may also hold full or part-time jobs. Both make juggling a school schedule more difficult.
However, community colleges have options that can ease the time constraints nontraditional students face including online classes and courses with flexible start dates.
As a single mom to an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old, Dodd took advantage of Valencia’s Flex Start courses, completing 12 credit hours in the fall of 2020 and 17 credit hours in the spring 2021 semester.
As Vice President of Valencia College’s Student Affairs, Joe Richardson is aware of the struggles faced by nontraditional students.
“Deciding to enroll in college as an adult learner is a huge decision, and represents a willingness to make an investment in yourself and in your future,” Richardson says.
But he says the faculty and staff at the college are there to encourage and support all students.
“You will not walk this journey alone,” Richardson says.
For some Central Floridians, heading back into the classroom does not mean pursuing a degree, but rather picking up a new skill or retraining for a different occupation.
The benefit of enrolling in training programs is these courses can be completed in a shorter amount of time compared to earning an associates or bachelor’s degree. Jobs with course-based certifications include medical assistant, carpenter, IT specialist, distribution operations technician and more.
Valencia College offers short-term job training programs in manufacturing, construction, transportation, logistics, and healthcare. According to the college, enrollment for its job training programs nearly doubled for the 2020-to-2021 school year compared to the previous 2019-to-2020 academic term. The 2020-to-2021 job training courses saw a total of 797 new students, many who were unemployed or underemployed, begin their education
Boot Camps, or short but intensive training courses in digital skills such as coding, have attracted students during the pandemic, too. Sean Armstrong, Executive Director of Continuing Education at the University of Central Florida, says UCF’s Boot Camps have seen an uptick in enrollment over the past 15 months.
“Students come to UCF Boot Camps from all professional backgrounds and experience levels, from recent graduates to hospitality workers to business owners,” Armstrong says. “They all share a common desire to learn the technology skills that power today’s digital economy in order to build more rewarding lives and careers.”
These classes prepare learners for careers in coding, data analytics, digital marketing, and user experience and design. About 42% of students in the training courses do not have a bachelor’s degree.
This past summer, Dodd graduated from Valencia College with an associate’s degree. She’s since transferred to UCF and is working toward her bachelor’s, although she ultimately hopes to achieve a master’s degree in clinical psychology.
“Now I have my AA,” Dodd says. “That’s something that can never be taken from me.”
As an adult learner, Dodd feels that she values her education in a way that she wouldn’t have when she was younger. But it’s not an easy process and she likens the experience to hitting the gym for a workout.
“You really don’t want to do it at first, but then you start making yourself go,” Dodd says. “And then all of a sudden you start seeing this result and you’re motivated by it to keep going on.”
Her advice to other adults considering going back to school: Just go for it.
“The biggest thing is just taking that first step,” Dodd says.