When Monica Brown earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from Falk College in 2009, it had been more than 20 years since she first set out for college. Back then, she had to unexpectedly withdraw in her second semester. That was the first of many challenges to occur through the years, none of which got in her way. “I never lost sight of my goal,” says Brown, who pursued part-time studies through University College while also working full time as a single parent. “I knew I had to continue my education.”
She credits her success to many helpers along the way, including her parents and siblings for their emotional and moral support, as well as their assistance with child care. She’s especially grateful for the encouragement of the staff at University College for helping her move forward from one semester to the next while juggling employment, classes, and raising her son, Johnny. “I wanted to set a good example for my son—to show him that hard work and determination pay off,” she says.
Brown says one of her proudest moments was when her son began college. “I wanted to give him the opportunity,” she says. “What he did with it was up to him.” But not long after he began college, in December 2004, Johnny lost his life in a car accident. “I didn’t think I was strong enough to continue my own education,” says Brown, who took a semester off after her son’s death. “He was my motivation for working hard and earning a college degree.”
Again with the help of all those who have supported her through the years, Brown returned to her coursework and achieved her degree. Today, she is the executive deputy commissioner for the Onondaga County Department of Social Services—Economic Security. She feels fortunate to be able to use her skills and experience to advocate for others and recommend systems changes for the county’s most vulnerable. And she finds in her grandchildren a renewed sense of motivation. “They are a very large part of my life,” Brown says. “I taught them the importance of pursuing an education, and completing a goal you’ve set for yourself.”
Brown’s unique story is just one example of the countless compelling and inspirational stories of the adult students who enter Syracuse University through University College. There, they find staff and leadership teams who understand their challenges and act as advocates and champions—each step of the way.
Haven for Nontraditional Students
University College (UC) has been a haven for nontraditional students since the evening of October 8, 1918, when SU Night School opened its doors to adults seeking degrees for career enhancement as well as lifelong learning. The intervening century has guided thousands of adult students to UC, where they have continued their education through part-time study—on campus and online—while continuing to work, raise families, and contribute to the communities where they live.
UC’s commitment to providing support, opportunity, and access is a focus of its mission statement, a document whose principles have guided the college for 100 years. The first director of evening sessions was M. Ellwood Smith, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University in 1906 and returned as a faculty member in 1912. Smith was aware the University had space that remained unused for many hours at a time when the country needed more educational opportunities. He recommended a self-supporting night school, and the first evening session was launched on that autumn night in 1918. Known as Syracuse University’s School of Extension Teaching and Adult Education, the night school had the full support of Chancellor James Roscoe Day, who served in his role from 1894 to 1922.
In the decades that followed, adult education at Syracuse University would see 13 leaders take the helm to steer UC forward—offering access to thousands of men and women seeking a Syracuse University degree. The former administrators were forward thinking, innovative, and committed to providing a first-class education to adults, veterans and active military, and first-generation college students.
“It should be apparent that University College is more than a night school for people seeking degrees or professional upgrading,” said Kenneth G. Bartlett, who served as acting director of the school from 1943 to 1946 and as dean from 1946 to 1952. “It is an idea; an idea that, in an age of continuous change and interdependence, democratic institutions need the steadying influence of a continuous education program…”
Jessica Peptis ’13 randomly found her way to University College by opening the phone book. A profoundly unstable home life led her to drop out of high school as a teenager, a common occurrence in her family. At age 18, Peptis gave birth to her first son and worked two jobs to support them. She earned a GED and promised herself she would return to school when her son started pre-K. “On the day I registered my son for pre-K, I walked home, put him down for a nap, and opened the phone book to ‘colleges,’” Peptis says. “The first college I saw was Syracuse University.”
Peptis called, set up an appointment, and was registered for classes within a few days. When she started at SU, she had two children and her biggest challenge was finding time to meet her many responsibilities. She worked at a day-care center and studied when the children slept. “I worked as many hours as I could, but still fell under the poverty line,” Peptis says. Government assistance helped her provide for her children, but making ends meet was still difficult. “Necessities such as food, electricity, and day-care costs were consistently difficult to obtain,” she says. “But I used these struggles as further resolve to earn my college degree and give my children stability.”
Peptis received financial assistance through the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) at University College, which allowed her to continue to work toward her degree. While the program provided the financial assistance she needed, UC staff, instructors, and fellow students gave her the strongest support, Peptis says. “I found a community that was invested in my well-being; people who were willing to push me when I felt defeated in my pursuit.” She paid forward the opportunities given to her by working as a writing tutor with HEOP students, and designed College Survival Skills, a course that is now required for incoming HEOP students. “It strengthens their basic skills and gives them more confidence in their ability to continue college,” she says.
Peptis, now a married mother of four, works as a high school teacher in the Syracuse City School District. Her position allows her to give students the academic and emotional encouragement they need to graduate and continue their education through trade school or college. Through higher education, Peptis changed her circumstances and now counsels her students to do the same. “Since I’ve experienced many of the same struggles my students face, I’m often able to understand their perspective and help them briefly set aside the short-term goal of survival and focus on their long-term goal of graduating and pursuing a career,” she says.
Championing Continuing Education
Alex Charters is known as one of the founding fathers of adult education. He began working as an administrator at University College in 1948, became assistant dean in 1950, and served as dean from 1952 to 1964. His wife, Margaret Charters G’71, G’04, reflected on his philosophy and passion for adult education in Syracuse University Publications in Continuing Education. “Alex saw the mission of adult education as assisting adults to obtain more control over their present circumstances and future destinies,” she said. “His entire life has been devoted to enabling the continuing education of adults. He believes that if democracy is to survive and peace and justice achieved, then all people worldwide must continue to learn throughout their lives.”
Charters donated his extensive collection of papers to the Alexander N. Charters Library of Resources for Educators of Adults, which is housed at Syracuse University and serves as a global repository for adult and continuing education collections.
In a 1991 article in The Courier, published by the SU Library Associates and part of the Charters’s collection, guest editor Mary Beth Hinton G’83, G’98 shared the views of Chancellor William Pearson Tolley ’22, G’24, H’69 on the importance of adult and continuing education, writing that he “championed adult and continuing education and made it part of the University’s ethos.” According to Hinton, the University’s seventh Chancellor (1942 to 1969) said, “If you believe in education, you believe in adult education—educators sometimes forget that we’ve a whole nation of people of all ages who need to learn.”
Bea González G’04, who began her career at SU in 1984, served as dean of University College from 2007 to 2017. González, now vice president of community engagement at SU, shared Charters’s passion for providing access and opportunity to part-time students. “We must continue to provide pathways to our students by working with our partners to ensure true opportunity and access,” she says. “All of us have had the privilege of witnessing the success of the many students we have met throughout the years. By virtue of their experience and educational journey, they changed their own lives, the lives of their children, and those people close to them. As University College moves into the next 100 years, I have no doubt that they will continue to set the bar high for quality higher education and continue to be advocates of lifelong learning.”
As University College moves into the next 100 years, I have no doubt that they will continue to set the bar high for quality higher educationand continue to beadvocates of lifelong learning.
—Bea González G’04
Since its beginnings in Reid and Peck halls in downtown Syracuse, UC has been an incubator for many of Syracuse University’s academic programs. These include the School of Social Work (1947), the Division of International Programs Abroad (now Syracuse Abroad; 1958), the Humanistic Study Center (1958), the University Regent Theatre (now Syracuse Stage; 1958), and the English Language Institute (1979), to name a few. The English Language Institute, for example, provides intensive English instruction to international students and visiting professionals at all proficiency levels.
“When you look at University College over the past 100 years, you see Syracuse University’s strategic response to the societal, cultural, economic, and global exigencies of each era,” says Mike Frasciello G’15, who was named dean of University College last September and holds a Ph.D. in composition and cultural rhetoric from the College of Arts and Sciences. “Today, University College continues to be the agile academic unit through which the University is responding to disruptive shifts in higher education, the rapidly evolving educational and skills demands of a global and transient workforce, and the notable progression away from traditional place-based, full-time education.”
Today, the pathway to a Syracuse University degree starts well beyond Central New York. Through a growing portfolio of market-responsive online bachelor’s degrees and certificates in professional studies, UC is leading the University’s efforts to offer an SU education that extends over international horizons. From creative leadership and cybersecurity administration to culture and the humanities, UC is opening the University to an increasingly connected and interdependent world. “The things I’ve learned in my classes at SU—teamwork, individual leadership, problem solving—were put to good use every day,” says creative leadership major Benjamin Vasquez ’18, a police officer from Geneva, New York, who interned at the White House last summer.
University College is located on the corner of Adams Street and University Avenue—on the cusp of the community it serves. For more than a half century, UC has built bridges to the community, fostered partnerships, and offered educational programs as part of its philosophy of lifelong learning. Thursday Morning Roundtable, a weekly civic forum, was started at Syracuse University in March 1965. Lee Smith, who served as assistant dean for community service at UC from 1965 to 1998, developed the concept. He also established the Onondaga Citizens League and the Institute for Retired Professionals programs.
Smith and his colleagues envisioned a weekly civic forum as a vehicle to bring together a mixture of business, social agency, educational, and civic leaders to learn about and discuss community issues and problems. They saw it as education for community development and problem solving. It was also viewed as a way to capitalize on the University’s expertise and prestige in the community.
As the landscape of education evolves, each decade brings new possibilities. University College will continue to develop programs that reflect its engagement with a fast-moving and diverse global environment. Online courses, associate and bachelor’s degrees, responsive executive education, alternative forms of academic credentials and innovative ways in which to gain them are a few of the offerings that will connect UC with students. Their dreams are what drive University College.
“While University College has evolved over the past 100 years, our core mission has remained the same—providing educational opportunities to students whose only access to a transformative Syracuse University education is through part-time study,” Frasciello says. “It’s a mission that visionary Chancellors and University leaders welded to the core of our institutional culture, and one which Chancellor Syverud has challenged us all to reimagine for a modern university of the 21st century.”
As University College moves into the next century, it will remain an entry point for students, an innovator of professional degrees and non-credit programs, and an advocate for those wishing to expand their knowledge.
This story was first published on June 7, 2018 and last updated on . It also appeared as “Life-Changing Learning” in the issue of Syracuse University Magazine.