R.E.A.L. students take an unconventional path to a degree

R.E.A.L. student Hanna Solomon, who will graduate the program in 2018, poses for a portrait in front of Ballou Hall on September 7, 2017. The Resumed Education for Adult Learners (R.E.A.L.) program has been around since the 70s and has given adults with an interrupted education an opportunity to get a Tufts bachelor's degree. (Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily)

Like many other Resumed Education for Adult Learning (R.E.A.L.) students, clinical psychology major Hanna Solomon, who will graduate the program in 2018, commutes from nearby. She drives to Tufts from her home in Boston with her husband, who is also a student in the R.E.A.L program. While R.E.A.L. students cannot live in on-campus dorms, she and the other R.E.A.L. students make use of the commuter house at 32 Dearborn Road, as well as the R.E.A.L. lounge in Carmichael Hall.

“We can stay [at the R.E.A.L. lounge] until late, or [whenever] is necessary for us,” she said. “It makes it easier when the library closes and we have nowhere to go.”

Living away from campus is only one of the difficulties R.E.A.L. students at Tufts face. Another R.E.A.L. student Fatima Niazy finances her studies in geological sciences solely from her own financial resources and loans.

“I am entirely independent. I don’t have parents. My finances are what I make and whatever loans I take out,” Niazy said. “I have family in Texas who sort of depend on me, in terms of helping them get along.” 

While these are only two narratives from R.E.A.L. students, an entire contingent of students over the age of 24 make up a part of the undergraduate student body and add their own unique perspective to Tufts classrooms while blending in with the traditional undergraduate student.

According to the R.E.A.L. program application website, the program allows individuals over the age of 24 whose college education has been interrupted to complete their bachelor’s degree at Tufts. The R.E.A.L. program caters toward their academic needs as parents, spouses, those currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces and veterans, according to the program’s website. The program requires that transfer students who fall under these categories commit to earning a bachelor’s degree and have some college experience within the last five years.

Dean of Undergraduate Studies Carmen Lowe and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Advising Kendra Barber lead the R.E.A.L. program. Barber, who is new to R.E.A.L. this year, hopes to look into how to improve the program and broaden its reach. According to Lowe, the R.E.A.L. program attracts a variety of students every year.

“It’s such a cross-section, including women who are working, who have families … sometimes it’s students of any gender who had some kind of disruption in their education,” she said.

Historically, the R.E.A.L. program was started to offer a degree to women who had interrupted their education to raise a family or had never attended college. It was founded in 1970 by Professor of Practice Antonia Chayes when she was dean of Jackson College.

[R.E.A.L.] started as a radical intervention at a period of time when higher education was really changing,” Lowe said. “Offering an opportunity for women to return to school was trying to make up for a kind of injustice that women faced as college students that men often did not face.”

The program was then extended to offer education to veterans returning from the Vietnam War, according to Lowe, and people of various backgrounds make up the R.E.A.L. student body today.

“Some of our [R.E.A.L.] students are married, and they have children and they have jobs, which can be a lot to manage. And others are single and in their twenties,” she said. “They’ve come to Tufts because they really want to have a traditional liberal arts experience.”

Solomon came to Tufts after taking classes at Bunker Hill Community College. She agreed that the R.E.A.L. program is home to students with a wide range of backgrounds, some of whom have also made the switch to Tufts from Bunker Hill to pursue a full-time degree.

“It’s definitely more diverse than the regular [student body],” Solomon said. “People from different walks of life, people from the army.”

R.E.A.L. students are eligible for the same financial aid as other undergraduates, but many of them — including Solomon — must also balance jobs with their academics to pay for tuition, according to Lowe.

“I think the hardest thing for me is to juggle work and school, because I still have to pay for my bills and stuff like that. And I think it’s the same for most R.E.A.L. students as well,” Solomon said. “Instead of working full-time now, I’m working part-time, only one day a week.”

Niazy, who will graduate the program in 2018, shared that she learned about Tufts through a college fair and was surprised to find out that it had a special application process for older students. 

“A lot of schools have old or returning students programs, but they have special classes that are not merged with the regular undergrads,” Niazy said. “For me that was central, because I’m committed to school, and I wanted to have the same classes.”

Lowe echoed the sentiment that the R.E.A.L. program occupied a unique place among other adult college programs. She said that at most schools, like the Harvard Extension School, adult learning programs place their students in classes and degree programs separate from the rest of the student body.

“But [in] the R.E.A.L. program, the students are in the same regular undergraduate courses, in the same degree programs, with the opportunity to get involved in student organizations and [take] leadership roles in the [Tufts Community Union] Senate [as well as] study abroad. Everything that’s open to an undergraduate is open to a R.E.A.L. student,” she said.

When it comes to the classroom dynamic of regular undergraduate and R.E.A.L. students, Solomon attests that it’s not particularly unusual.

“Most people think I’m a regular student, so when I talk about my age, where I’m from, … they look shocked. It happens every time,” she said. “Not a lot of professors know either, so we end up explaining it every time.”

While R.E.A.L. students may not be noticeably different from their undergraduate peers, Niazy pointed out that integrating adult learners with their younger counterparts in undergraduate life creates diversity in student perspectives.

“When you’re introduced to information as an older student, you tend to put it in the context of what you already know, whereas the younger students will put it in the context of what they learned in class,” Niazy said.

Lowe concurred that diversity of life experiences among R.E.A.L. students can enrich and inform classroom conversations at Tufts.

“You can imagine [that] if you’re taking a class where most of the students are between the ages of 18 and 22, [it’s] a child development class and someone in that class has raised children or has a couple of toddlers, their perspective really adds to the class,” Lowe said. “It really changes the conversations in the class. ”

While the R.E.A.L. program offers traditional undergraduate students a different perspective in the classroom, for adult learners like Solomon, the R.E.A.L. program offers an opportunity to fulfill their college dreams.

“That’s one of the things that made me apply to Tufts. You feel like they’re giving you a second chance, and anywhere else you’re like, ‘will I even finish, time is flying by, stuff like that,’” Solomon said. “It really gives you hope. You really feel like, ‘Okay, I can turn this around. I can make this happen.’”