Adult Learners Unleash Their Potential at Creighton

Why Creighton Makes Good Cents for Veterans

Creighton used to be off the menu of options if a veteran wanted to use educational benefits from the military to pay for college. Not so anymore. Thanks to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, combined with the Yellow Ribbon Program, soldiers are trading in their duffle bags for backpacks and heading to college. And not just any college, a Creighton education is now within reach.

According to retired Army Lt. Col. Mark Turner, director of military and veteran affairs and director of the business office, the Post-9/11 GI Bill pays $20,235 per academic year for tuition and fees, up to $1,000 for books and a monthly housing allowance. While $20,235 is a lot of money, it doesn’t get you to a full education at Creighton.

To close the gap, the Yellow Ribbon Program allows a school to provide additional funds to a veteran who is fully eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Once the veteran’s Post-9/11 GI Bill annual cap is met, the Yellow Ribbon Program allows Creighton to fund an additional $10,000 for undergraduate veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) then offers a matched contribution for a total of up to $20,000 each academic year.

Creighton’s involvement in the Yellow Ribbon program does not stop with undergraduate veteran students. Creighton funds $5,000 for graduate students and the VA offers a match of $5,000 as well. Creighton’s School of Law also offers 12 awards of $5,000 each with the applicable VA match.   

“With each passing term, we are thrilled to see more veterans attending Creighton,” says Turner. “I have no doubt this will not only continue, but steadily increase as long as the federal funding continues to support these two remarkable benefits.”

Adult Learners Unleash Their Potential at Creighton

By Ann Freestone, BA’89

When people think of a traditional college student, they often think of an 18 to 22 year old pursuing a bachelor's degree, who lives on campus. That picture is changing. More and more, adults are heading back to school to complete their degrees, and they are an important part of the Creighton community. They are in good company: One of the first adult learners, St. Ignatius of Loyola, attended college at 35 after serving in the military.  

Adult learners are not new to Creighton, but certain programs are. Formerly University College, the College of Professional Studies (CPS) opened its doors in 1983 to serve this growing population. In 2009, students 25 and older accounted for roughly 40 percent of all college and graduate students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The number of adult learners is expected to be 9.6 million by 2020, according to the NCES.

“The growth in higher education by age group — those 25 and older — is expected to be twice as much as the traditional learner,” says Tracy Chapman, Ph.D., associate dean of Adult and eLearning, and executive director of the Center for Academic Innovation at Creighton. She says the predicted increase in adult learners is due to an increased national focus on reaching the millions of adults who have started a degree but did not finish, thus positively impacting the level of education of the workforce. The decrease in the number of traditional students is a result of shrinking birthrates.

To ensure Creighton continues to attract the adult learner, it stays on top of the trends. Chapman said adult learners prefer hybrid or blended classes where the class is part online, part face-to-face. Creighton offers them. Higher education institutions, including Creighton, are giving credit for college-level learning that happens outside the classroom. Also new on the adult learning front are competency-based programs that measure what a student has learned instead of the amount of time they spend learning.  

The 308 adult students enrolled in undergraduate programs at Creighton range up to age 72, are an equal balance of males and females, and 15 percent are veterans (see “Why Creighton Makes Good Cents for Veterans”).

“Adult learners bring a rich diversity of life experience and enrich the campus,” says Gail Jensen, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School and the newly named College of Professional Studies. “When we talk about social justice, adult learners get it because they have rich life experiences. Their life experiences make these values come to life because they may have a family, may have been in the military or may have struggled with a job. Their perspective is very different from that of an 18 year old.”  

The Ignatian piece is certainly the value-added part of a Creighton education.

“Creighton’s niche is to provide this student population access to high-quality, mission-based Jesuit education,” says Chapman. “We focus on developing individuals in the key areas sought after by employers.”

A few key areas include a broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences, the ability to think critically, solve complex problems, as well as demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity. She says Creighton provides an interdisciplinary approach to the students’ field of study so they approach their learning, work and the context of their daily lives from multiple perspectives.    

While life experience is a common denominator, there isn’t a typical adult student. Some are going for their first degree and others want another degree for a fresh start in a new career. Others have been the victims of downsizing. Most, however, juggle families, jobs and school. To make obtaining a college degree while managing so many demands as smooth as possible, Creighton has programs in place to help adult learners succeed.  

Beginning this past fall, adult learners now complete their core curriculum of 35 hours through CPS, rather than the college they are enrolled in. According to Erika Kirby, Ph.D., professor of communication studies and faculty liaison for adult learning, there are fewer hours to complete and the core courses are outcomes-based.  

“This makes a big difference in how transfer-friendly Creighton is to adults,” says Kirby.

Within CPS, adult students can earn credits by proving learning outcomes based on their life experiences, such as military training, work experience and certificates. In some cases, students take tests or compile a written portfolio to earn credits.  

To accommodate hectic schedules, CPS offers accelerated degree programs in which students attend evening classes once a week for four hours to complete an eight-week course. Degrees include organizational communication, creative writing and health administration. In addition, online courses provide additional flexibility in earning credits — and students can even earn an online degree, with Creighton’s Bachelor’s in Leadership Studies.

CPS understands adult learners may not have written an academic paper or used a library for research in a long time.

“One of the most critical things about adult learning is building the self-confidence that they can succeed,” says Jensen. “For many, they had negative experiences in high school or at community colleges. Building self-confidence goes to the heart of learning and helps them fulfill their lives and contribute to the community.”

To build that confidence, CPS requires adult learners to take Making the Transition to College: Strategies for Degree Completion. Kirby wrote this course. Students learn about resources such as BlueLine, a learning management system that supports coursework, and the EDGE, a wealth of resources for academic and career planning. They also create a personalized degree completion plan and learn time- and stress-management techniques among other topics.   

“Most important in this class is how to locate resources on campus that they might not know about so they can take advantage of what’s available,” says Kirby. Take writing skills for example. Students have access to high-quality online writing support services. To work around students’ schedules, writing support services as well as other tutoring opportunities are available after hours and online.  

Kirby co-planned an upper-level course for adult learners called What Really Matters — Meaning in Work Life. She says they explore Jesuit educational traditions and Jesuit charisms — values — in a way that connects with post-traditional students. “They think about their gifts, what matters to them and how they will apply them as they come out of Creighton,” says Kirby.

These courses are two ways Creighton connects nontraditional students to each other so they can have a greater sense of community. They also participate in the nontraditional students union, as well as the national honor society dedicated to recognizing adult students, Alpha Sigma Lambda, which Creighton joined in 2014. Other ways include service projects and special activities during National Nontraditional Student Week in November.

Faculty Get Smart on Adult Learning  

Online programs expand Creighton’s bandwidth to reach busy adult learners. To ensure professors understand adult-learning theory, apply Ignatian values and engage students in an online environment, they take a course — Foundations of Effective Online Teaching and Learning. Anne Schoening, Ph.D., an assistant professor and faculty development coordinator for the College of Nursing and a fellow with Creighton’s Center for Academic Innovation (CAI), co-teaches the class.

“Adult learners are autonomous, independent, self-directed learners who come with a wealth of life and professional experience,” says Schoening. “They need to understand we value that experience because they bring a unique perspective to any learning situation at Creighton.”  

Instructors engage nontraditional students by showing them the practical side of what they are learning, even if it is theoretical in nature. “They need to see the practicality and relevance. It’s very important,” says Schoening.    

Within the class, the faculty apply Ignatian values, such as cura personalis or care for the whole person. “There’s a true commitment to the mind, body and spirit. We’re interested in students as people,” says Schoening. “How do we practice cura personalis? Adult learners are busy people with careers and family obligations, so we acknowledge these and ask ourselves, ‘Under what circumstance do we need to be flexible with the adult learner?’”

As Creighton looks at the increasing pool of adult learners, the University will continue its mission to best serve them because it works, with graduates every day making a difference in their professions and their community.


Every adult learner has a compelling story behind how they returned to school. Read the following stories of these five Creighton undergraduate adult students.

Ron Fergeson

Ron Fergeson says he didn’t pick kindergarten, but kindergarten picked him. When he was taking an education course while in the Army, he went in uniform to observe a kindergarten class and within five minutes of being around the students, he knew he belonged there. Now he’s close to achieving his goal of teaching.

After 26 years in the military with the first 13 as a cavalry scout and the second as a career counselor, the Harley-riding 46-year-old Omaha native was going to earn his education degree at a public university. But when he found out how long it would take, he checked out Creighton. He learned he could cut a year off of his studies.

“I’m honored to go to Creighton,” says Fergeson. “I’ve always held Creighton in high reverence.” When he was about kindergarten age, he’d drive past Creighton with his grandparents and think that Creighton is the place to go. He’ll graduate in May 2016.         

While in the Army, Fergeson attended 10 different schools, ultimately getting a general studies associate’s degree. He says he’s noticed Creighton is different.

“The big difference is the personal attention to details Creighton provides to the students,” he says. “They are genuinely concerned about the student’s success and how they’re doing. It’s not a cattle drive.”

One challenge, however, is technology. He found the technological aspect a bit daunting because the traditional students have so much more experience with it. He referenced a computer technology course that was fast-paced for him.

“‘Hey, you’re going at warp speed, and I don’t have the engine started yet,’” he would be thinking about the class, which wasn’t as challenging for the traditional students since they grew up with cell phones and the Internet.    

Fergeson enjoys debating with the traditional students and his time with the adult learners. And he’s on pace to fulfill that other classroom dream — to educate the next generation as a kindergarten teacher.

Darling Handlos

The ninth child of a single mom, she will be the first in her family to earn a college degree. Darling Handlos grew up in Nicaragua and came to Bellevue, Neb., in 2000 because her mother had moved there. In June 2014, Handlos, who is 33, became an American citizen. Today, one of her driving motivations is to help immigrants escape poverty and obtain an education.  

When she first arrived, she took ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, earned her general equivalency degree (GED) and after having her first child, she stayed home for 10 years. In 2010, she attended a community college to earn her paralegal studies degree and currently works full-time as a paralegal in a private firm. Previously, she worked for a nonprofit, Justice for Our Neighbors, whose mission is to welcome and help immigrants. Handlos’ work there and being an immigrant herself inspire her to want to go to law school.

“I strongly believe that our experiences — our life story — equips us in our personal mission to love, inspire and serve others,” she says. “That’s where my true joy comes from.”  

Today, Handlos juggles her family responsibilities, work and school at Creighton. This pre-law student is pursuing her Bachelor’s in Leadership Studies (BLS) degree. When she first thought of attending Creighton, she had heard that students with a GED or classes from a community college do not make it at Creighton. “I thought I was way out of my league here,” she says, but Laurie Galeski in admissions at the time, changed her perception — and Handlos is so glad that she did.  

She’s now involved in the nontraditional student union as the social media and community service coordinator, is a member of the Alpha Sigma Lambda honor society and a peer mentor for an adult learner course, Making the Transition to College: Strategies for Degree Completion.   

“I love being a part of the Ignatian family,” says Handlos. “I love the mission of Creighton. I live it. St. Ignatius is one of my inspirations.”  

Jenna Mucci

Between shifts of brewing up lattes as a barista, Jenna Mucci pursues her biology degree. A new student who started in the fall at Creighton, Mucci said she always loved science. “I decided to go for it — go big — and go into biology and probably do research,” she says.  

Before Creighton, she served in the Air Force. On the younger side of adult learners, 23-year-old Mucci started basic training in the Air Force in July 2009 after graduating from high school in Corning, Calif. As an airborne language analyst, she learned two languages — Persian Farsi and Afghan Dari. Mucci’s five years of service allowed her to take advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, as well as the Yellow Ribbon Program. And her background translated into several transfer credits. “It’s great to have some of those credits already there,” she says.    

Managing the challenges of school and her job keep her busy, but she makes it work. “Juggling work and school is always a challenge because school has ever-changing demands, but I always know when I need to do school work and try my best while doing it,” she says. “My husband plays a big role in normalizing my home life while I am running between school and work.”

Although she did not grow up in a religious household, she’s already read up on Ignatian values and noticed how the professors implement them. “I’ve noticed the Ignatian values already,” says Mucci, “and I’ve only been here for half a semester.”

Jill Limas

After graduating from high school in 1988, Jill Limas attended two universities but ended up on academic suspension for one year. Her next step — working full-time at the Sarpy County Courthouse — contributed to her current pursuit of becoming a mediator.          

“There (at the courthouse), I grew up, fell in love with the Nebraska judicial system and discovered that I loved learning,” says Limas. She spent 10 years working her way up in several departments. “When I mastered everything I could at the courthouse, I realized I must return to school if I want to advance my career.”

But when her grandma couldn’t live on her own and moved in with her parents and Limas’ dad became ill, she moved back home to help her close-knit Italian family.  “During that time, my resolve to return to school became even more focused,” says Limas. “I also became a single parent. Fortunately, my family was very supportive during this time.” She attended a community college, but found that her infant son wasn’t receiving the attention he needed, so she put her education on hold.  

Now her son (pictured with Limas above) is 12 and Limas has completed her undergraduate degree in December 2014 in creative writing, one of the accelerated programs Creighton offers. “With my son’s encouragement, I put attention to my education once and for all,” she says. “I think he wanted to see if I practice what I preach to him! He hasn’t been disappointed.”   

Although she had fears about attending Creighton, such as whether she could “cut the muster,” in reality she found she could do well and even help others who struggle. She also has met other students like her who are single parents and working full time. She’s made friends.  

It wasn’t easy. In addition to working full time as a legal secretary at a law firm while earning her degree, she also has made time for campus activities, including the Committee on the Status of Women, the Faces of Creighton and Omicron Delta Kappa national leadership honor society.

To use her gifts, Limas plans to apply to the Werner Institute at Creighton for a Master of Science in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution. “I want to be a mediator, to lighten the burden of the courts and help the flow of cases through the judicial system,” says Limas.

Julian McFadden

Julian McFadden packs a powerful punch in the boxing ring and in 2010 won both the Midwest and U.S. regional Golden Gloves championships. As a senior at Creighton, this 24-year-old international relations major holds down 18 credit hours as well as three jobs, two of which he works late into the night, arriving home at 3 a.m.

“I tell myself it will pay off,” says McFadden. “I’m in my senior year. I’m so close.”    

McFadden sets his goals high. One goal was to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, but when he found out he was going to be a father, he decided to go to school. After attending a community college and a private school, he decided to enroll at Creighton. His 3-year-old daughter is his motivation. He hasn’t hung up his gloves and will be fighting in the U.S. trials to compete in the 2016 Olympics.

McFadden takes a comment from his boxing coach that has helped him with his studies. When McFadden was 19, the coach said, “Boxers never listen.” Even though he thinks the coach was joking, McFadden said the comment turned him into a listener. “That stuck with me,” he says, “and I apply it here.” It seems to be working, as McFadden will graduate in May.    

Over the past three years at Creighton, he’s noticed how involved a professor in political science has been in his career. This type of concern was not something he got at the community college. “They’re really invested in my career and are dedicated to my success,” says McFadden. “That was brand new to me.”  

Although he knows he will have to start small, McFadden thinks of many ways he can use his international relations degree: the FBI or foreign policy are a couple options he’s considering.