Scan the crowd filled with fellow members of the class of 2017 at Matriculation, and you’ll find about 1,300 other students anxious to join the Tufts community. High school and some gap years completed, many are living away from home for the first time.
Eight of the new students matriculating today, though, have a different story to tell. These eight students are adults resuming their education this fall through the Resumed Education for Adult Learning (REAL) program, which has enrolled students since 1970.
Although many universities place their adult students in extension programs that are separate from undergraduates, Tufts REAL program offers the complete undergraduate experience to adult students, including resources like financial aid and the Tufts Educational Day Care Center for those students with children.
“This is a special program because Tufts recognizes that we have a great education to offer talented adults,” Jean Herbert, director of the REAL program and associate dean for the School of Arts and Sciences, told the Daily in an e-mail. “Any returning student might go to a state school, for example, but those who want to be challenged with the kind of education a selective college can offer have few choices.”
Antonia Chayes, currently a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, founded the REAL program in 1970 when she was a dean of Jackson College, Herbert said. It was created for women who were unable to go to college, or who had to put their education on hold for their families. In 1976, the program was opened to male students.
“Tufts was ahead of other schools in its commitment to this kind of program, especially by offering financial aid,” Herbert said. “I would guess that the percentage [of financial aid rewarded] is quite high since we do not ask for parental contributions for these adult students.”
Bobbie Knable, former director of the REAL program, wrote about the opportunities that enrollment at Tufts offers adult learners for the program’s 20th anniversary in 1990.
“In the sixties, when Americans saw education as a means to economic and social mobility, we discovered that access was limited for large segments of the population: some were too poor even for the public institutions, and entrance requirements to the most selective colleges excluded most of those capable of doing the work but not conventionally prepared,” Knable said.
Today, the REAL program is open to adults 24 and older with some college experience who are looking to complete their bachelor’s degree. The program currently has 36 students enrolled, including the eight beginning this fall, and the Admissions Office provides support to these students throughout their time at Tufts.
Herbert acts as the academic dean for all the students in the program, along with Kim Knox, associate dean for the School of Engineering, who works with engineering students. Many REAL students have said that professors also offer a great deal of attention.
“The professors are unbelievable. They really are great,” REAL student David Romano said. “They bend over backwards to help. Whenever I send them an e-mail, they shoot one back to me within less than a day.”
Romano, 32, is in his third semester at Tufts, although he began the process of going back to school at Bunker Hill Community College. In addition to taking a full course load here, he works full-time as a hairstylist and cares for his daughter.
“I love what I do and am not sure if I want to make a huge change in my life or career, but I have an eight-year-old daughter,” Romano said. “She is with me full time and I wanted to set a good example for her. So I started that process at Bunker Hill [by] slowly taking two to three classes a semester.”
Many other REAL students also began their education at community college before acceptance into the program at Tufts. Some, like Romano, are merely looking to continue their education, while others are looking for a drastic career change.
Hudson Gloria, a 34 year-old musician from Brazil, will begin his second semester at Tufts this fall studying chemical engineering. After working in the music industry for more than 10 years, he enrolled in the REAL program.
“There came a moment where I had to make a choice. Music was too [many] ups and downs, and being away from home,” Gloria said. “After I got married, it was not fun anymore to be away for a month. I had to at least know how to do something else.”
Tufts provides financial aid for REAL students that are eligible, although affording tuition to a high-cost school remains a burden to some, including Gloria. He said that he received very little financial aid from Tufts’ need-based assessment.
“It is financially difficult for me. I had a career before; we had a life before,” Gloria said. “Luckily I’m getting a degree that I can do something with.”
Though the REAL program offers many accommodations for its students, those in the program say they still face significant challenges. For example, managing a home, working and commuting prove difficult, particularly for those children. Helen Achwei, who has a six-year-old son and is studying biomedical engineering, knows that strain well.
“When I got to Tufts, it was quite a challenge. I would be in school for a long time and when I got home, my son would be ready to go to bed,” Achwei said. “I didn’t have time for him. There are days I would take two hours to get home.”
Achwei says her family now takes things day-by-day and must always plan ahead to balance out family time. These and other complications are ones that most undergraduate students do not have to deal with.
“Because of living far from school, you don’t have people or friends to study with. Being in the sciences, it doesn’t help studying alone,” Achwei said. “You need someone to study with, but we don’t have peers to work with. We are running home to take care of family, it’s hard.”
Although full integration with the Tufts undergraduate community in class causes some unease among REAL students, Romano said his experience has been a positive one.
“I think every single student I’ve encountered has been really, really nice and helpful,” Romano said. “I’ve had a few people that I’ve exchanged phone numbers with, and we keep in touch.”
The lack of awareness of the REAL program among many Tufts undergraduates, though, can also lead to uncomfortable situations, Achwei said.
“When I was at a community college, there were a lot of people my age. I didn’t really feel any different,” Achwei said. “At Tufts, I felt it was quite difficult to make friends. I think they look at us with a different perspective. A lot of them feel that we are graduate students. They kind of shied away from us.”
Achwei said that an increased understanding of the program and background of adult learners could help alleviate some discomfort.
“A lot of students don’t know about the [REAL] program,” she said. “I don’t think [the university] really can do anything other than putting the program out there so students know about it.”
Many REAL students have high aspirations for after graduation. Some, like Gloria, plan on immediately entering their chosen career field, while others plan on attending graduate school or building a family. No matter their plans after graduation, many REAL students, as Achwei said, feel thankful for the opportunity to study at Tufts.
“I didn’t even think of Tufts as an option,” Achwei said. “Getting into the REAL program and having the privilege of going to school at Tufts, I feel really lucky for that.”