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Nontraditional Students Get Traditional Ivy Education at General Studies

By Caroline Ladhani

Sue Cummings was editor-in-chief of a syndicated music news service before enrolling at Columbia.

Every year, thousands of academically gifted students interrupt their college careers due to professional or personal life circumstances. Some would like to return to school at a rigorous, top-notch university. But no matter how successful or how bright, they are usually ineligible for traditional-track undergraduate studies at Ivy League schools. This is not the case at Columbia, however, the only Ivy League institution to fully integrate returning students into the regular undergraduate curriculum through its
School of General Studies (GS).

Columbia is an immediate choice for many students returning to pursue degrees because it offers a quality education and a prestigious name.

After five years in the Marines, returning student Mick Devine, 25, a former flight navigator, hopes the academic challenges of attending Columbia will prepare him for a job around which he can create a better quality of life.

The Long Island native withdrew from school after a year at the University of North Carolina. With a passion for flying and longing for some direction in his life, he joined the Marines and graduated from the Marine Aerial Navigation School. From Turkey and Morocco to Europe and the Pacific, he flew with his crew, patrolling no-fly zones in Iraq, refueling planes in the air and delivering cargo from Key West to Kosovo.

Devine loved the life of a flight navigator until one day, his crew reported they had apparently been shot at over Kosovo. While the report was never confirmed by the military, the potential danger and constant travel coupled with his own desire for family life, caused him to rethink how he was making a living.

Honorably discharged from the Marines in December, Devine is basking in the oasis of academic possibilities at Columbia. Not yet committed to a major, he is exploring a new take on an old favorite - mathematics -- and is convinced he is finally on the right path.

Beating true in the hearts of GS students like Devine is the desire to fulfill their academic potential, demonstrated in many cases by the enormous success achieved without a college degree. Such is also the case with GS student Sue Cummings, 38, a former editor-in-chief of a syndicated news service, who was accepted to Yale after high school but never got to go because her parents would not sign the loan papers.

Lynda Spongberg was a vice president at Morgan Stanley before coming to study at GS.

At 18, Cummings moved to New York and found jobs typesetting and doing paste-up for downtown alternative newspapers. On the side, she played bass in a punk band. Her knowledge of the city and the music scene landed her a job as an editorial assistant at the launch of Spin magazine. A fascination with the West Coast then drew her to Los Angeles where she became a pop critic at the LA Daily News.

After brief stints at a community college and UCLA, she worked as a senior music editor for LA Weekly and launched "Rock for Choice," the fundraising arm of the Feminist Majority in Los Angeles. Cummings returned to New York in 1996 to become editor-in-chief of MJI Broadcasting, a daily syndicated music news service.

Despite this success, Cummings feels she must grow academically to move her career forward. She recalls that a former advisor back at her high school, St. Andrews-Sewanee, in Knoxville, had encouraged her to pursue an Ivy League education. Now, finally fulfilling that dream at Columbia, she describes her experience as "indulging in an intellectual smorgasbord."

Whether for prestige, professional advancement or learning for learning's sake, GS students say taking the plunge back to school, especially at one of the most academically challenging universities in the world, requires a great deal of gumption, despite all that life experience.

"It takes a tremendous amount of courage to commit to a second beginning or change in direction," said GS student Lynda Spongberg, 37, a former vice president at Morgan Stanley. She enrolled this spring in the School of General Studies after discovering a new passion -- psychology. For Spongberg, caring for her mother, who was dying of cancer, spawned an interest in the psychology of death and dying. She began to reassess her values and discovered she was a "born psychologist." Spongberg has returned to school to pursue a career in the field.

Spongberg said that life experience is enhancing her classroom experience.

"[GS students] have had many real-life experiences which can be related back to the lessons taught in our coursework," she said. "Having real-life experience can enrich the significance of academic material, it need not necessarily be the other way around."

The School of General Studies, created in 1947, is the premier liberal arts college in the country created specifically for students who for personal or professional reasons interrupt their education before completing the BA or BS degree. GS is also home to the joint undergraduate program with List College of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program, the oldest and largest certificate program that prepares college graduates in the humanities and social sciences for entrance into medical school or other healthcare related graduate programs.

Published: Mar 29, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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