Profiles in Perseverance

Desiree Nash ’16 was a hard-working and competent sales associate for a major telephone company when an executive was blunt with her one day.

“He told me, ‘Desiree, you are charming, and you have all this work experience. That will get your foot in the door, but you will never get a seat at the table unless you get a degree.’ ’’
return1Nash had attended the University of Rhode Island in 1997, but left after one year to pursue other interests in Atlanta. Now she was paying for her decision to drop out: no diploma, no promotion.

So she picked up the phone and called her alma mater’s new program, Finish What You Started—an innovative and fast-growing effort to give students like Nash a second chance. Last September, Nash started where she left off 17 years ago, this time wiser, more focused, and determined to see it through. She’s been taking classes at the Feinstein Campus in Providence to earn her bachelor of interdisciplinary studies degree and is set to graduate in 2016.

“I have an attainable goal,’’ she says. “There’s no stopping me.’’

The program is the idea of Dean Libutti ’95, vice provost for enrollment management and a strong advocate for returning students. Two and a half years ago, the University reached out to a pilot group: 300 students who had left before completing their studies. Most had earned 75 credits toward the 120 required for a bachelor’s degree.

The response was overwhelming. This summer, 65 students will have graduated from the program, with another 145 coming up behind them. A further 540 have been in touch with coordinators. Those are encouraging numbers in a state where an estimated 115,000 Rhode Islanders have started college, but never finished.

“Finish What You Started is amazing because it works,’’ says coordinator Connie Pritchard ’11. “One of the reasons it’s so successful is that we establish a relationship with our students to monitor progress and success. We stay in touch—and not just by email. We call, we talk.’’

The staff works closely with students on re-admission, and once they’re enrolled they receive full support to navigate their return after, in some cases, a long absence. Classes are held on the Providence campus and URI’s main campus in Kingston, as well as online. URI also offers courses, at reduced cost, during the winter J-term and summer.

Student support services are available on both campuses, and on the Providence campus tutoring and workshops are held every Saturday, complete with free babysitting for students with children. The workshops focus on both academic and life issues, from how to balance work and family to how to write a paper. For students who owe prior balances, there’s a “matching” scholarship up to $500 to help students re-enroll in good standing.

Personal accomplishment is not, of course, the only reason to earn a degree. Increasing the number of college graduates—in essence, educating the work force—is crucial to revitalizing the economy. And it’s no secret that college graduates earn more. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the average lifetime earnings of a college graduate is $2.3 million, compared to $1.5 million for those with some college, and $1.3 million for high school graduates.

With the number of projected high school graduates on the decline, and a national government push to increase the number of college graduates by seven million people by 2020, Libutti says the population of those who started college but never completed is an important yet often overlooked group.

“Finish What You Started is on to something very big and very necessary,’’ says Libutti. “Returning to college is not easy, but having advanced academic credentials and skill sets are essential in today’s economy. Finish What You Started is good for individuals and their families, but it’s also good for employers and the state as a whole.’’

Nash, now 34 and living in Providence, is grateful she’s part of it. “You can’t be a sales associate forever,’’ she says. “I got burned out. I wanted more from my life.’’

return2It’s a sentiment shared by Domingo Varella ’15, of Cranston, who was only about 30 credits short of his bachelor’s degree when he left URI 21 years ago to find a job so he could take care of his young daughter. He found work as a technician at GTECH and as an aide in a group home for adults with mental challenges, but he always regretted not finishing his studies.

When his daughter, Rae-Ann Roderick ’13, graduated from URI last spring, he knew he had to go back—for Roderick and her younger siblings, ages 5 and 8. “I wanted to show my children that I never quit,’’ he says.

He’s shooting for a B.S. in human development and family studies. It hasn’t been easy. “Coming home from an 8- or 10-hour day, making dinner, helping with homework, you don’t even start to study until you’ve put them to bed,” he says. “It wears on you.” He’s been taking two classes a semester and hopes to graduate next summer; he credits his professors and everyone he’s encountered on the Finish team for helping to make it doable. “They know how tough it is for older students. As long as you do your best, they see it.”

The end goal is working with at-risk families or teens in the Providence area. “Somewhere in that field is where my heart lies,” he says. And he’ll have a hard-won message to impart to the kids he works with: “I want to make them understand how tough it really is, being out there without a college education.”

—Elizabeth Rau