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A Different Path

By Jay Wamsley | Photography by

Pink slip. Corporate restructuring. Downsizing. 

Re-examining our resources.

These are phrases that those dependent on a regular paycheck don’t enjoy hearing, especially when those euphemisms are pointed at them.

Joshua Felix had those phrases pointed directly at him on — yes, he can remember the exact day — Aug. 3, 2016.

“I was working for a company providing product and technical support, making around $75,000 a year, so school was not on my radar, as I was doing well enough,” Felix, who had attended Utah Valley State College during its transition into Utah Valley University, remembers. “However, that all changed when the company had an all-hands meeting, letting us know that they would be doing some corporate restructuring, refocusing resources, and as such all of us in the meeting were no longer needed.

“Needless to say, I suddenly had time on my hands, and finding a new career might take a while. I had previous experiences where I was told by several companies that they would hire me on the spot if only I had a degree. So I had to start planning on how to pay for my mortgage and provide for my wife and nine kids.”

The next day, Felix, 42, says pink turned to green as he received an email from UVU inviting him back to finish what he had not quite completed.

Utah, as it turns out, is in the top five states nationally with working adults who have some college credit — sometimes a lot of it — but no degree. Tara Ivie, who served as assistant director of UVU’s Office of First-Year Experience and Student Retention, worries about these people. 

We know we have a specific service region,” Ivie says, “and we felt we needed to reach out and help them finish their degrees. We know students’ completing their college education opens up opportunity, provides financial stability, and improves outcomes in everything from health, to divorce rates, to child success in school — so much is related to the person’s education level. So proactive outreach to help students complete their degrees was initiated by our office in Fall 2016.”

Just in time for Joshua Felix.            

My records were reactivated and an appointment was set up for me to talk to an academic counselor to get me back on track to graduation,” Felix says. “I told my counselor that I would give UVU one semester and go from there. She came back with multiple options in order to graduate.” 

Felix says he chose an option that allowed him to pick an internship that might translate into a job. “I had the awesome opportunity to work with UVU's internship group and was given 30 to 40 job leads, but right then all of the fall internships had already been filled.”

Utilizing grant money Felix learned about, thanks to information from UVU’s Returning Wolverine program, he eventually completed his degree and put a traumatic pink slip in his rear-view mirror.

“I am also grateful to the Student Retention department for the Returning Wolverine grant, which helped relieve some of the pressure I was feeling in regard to providing for my family,” Felix says. “In the end, I was able to find employment with the University of Utah Hospital Radiology department, and they were willing to work with me to fulfill the requirements of the internship. So happily, I am gainfully employed in a promising career, and I know that my previous lack of a degree will not keep me from achieving my goals.”

Ivie says the Returning Wolverine program is, at its core, deeply woven within the major pillars and mission of the university. 

UVU prides itself on being a top-notch open-access platform for education. If we take that seriously,” she says, “it means we need to meet students where they are; to help them understand the value of their education, provide the opportunity for them to get it, and then facilitate that process. Students may choose to drop out of school, not understanding long-term repercussions. We know from the higher education data we see, those students will wind up coming back. And Returning Wolverine has proven that.

“We’ve got these students who are successful in their fields and doing well, but they end up hitting a ceiling because they can’t advance any further until they get that degree, that credential, to back up their professional experience. I think at a fundamental level, it is just the right thing to do.”

Noemy Medina, program manager in the First-Year Experience and Student Retention office, says UVU has a unique student population with identifiable traits that add to the need to seek out Wolverines to return and graduate. 

“My perception is that on this campus, students marry at a younger age,” Medina says. “And they start families at a younger age, and I think that can put pressure on families to work full time. And if you’re working, you might get the opportunity for a promotion or to work full time instead of part time, and that’s where we see students taking that on. They stop and drop out of school. But then usually something happens in their life that requires them to come back and finish their degree. That’s where we’ve been able to help many students.”

Ivie suggests that another characteristic of UVU students is that “they are very debt-averse, so we have a lot of students who want to work to avoid debt. That means they are taking a semester, two semesters, three semesters off to save money, just to come back to school.” She says she believes that is not financially efficient, as the money lost from not having a degree is actually more than what is gained by stepping aside from education pursuits. 

“The longer it takes them to graduate, the more that degree is going to cost them,” Ivie says, ”and they are delaying the potential income that would be theirs after they graduate. That’s why UVU established a lot of resources to help students, like the Money Management Resource Center, to identify and help students figure out how to make their budgets work so they can use their money more wisely, so they can complete a degree more efficiently, and graduate, and move on to those other things in life — whether that is family, work, or other priorities.”

For UVU alum Ris Ratliff, fashioning a program “just for me” was the perfect answer to help her return and graduate with a degree in university studies. 

Ratliff had made several attempts at enjoying college, first at UVU, then Dixie State, then UVU again, but found searching for her niche incredibly frustrating. She readily admits that the one passion she had in life was being a full-time nanny, something she did for many years, both as a single woman and while married, but she couldn’t find that same passion for much of her coursework. 

“I changed my major so many times trying to find the right fit,” she says. “I ended up nannying for a family in American Fork while going to UVU. I tried ballroom dance, premed, nursing, photography, education again…so many different things trying to find that right fit. I felt like I already knew what I wanted to do, but I was slugging along, taking out student loans, taking 15-18 credits a semester, changing my major, trying to find that right fit. I was feeling incredibly unhappy with school.”

The Ratliff family made the decision to take employment in Las Vegas with Ris being a nanny “to a family I dearly loved.” For four years, she was employed in Las Vegas and New Jersey. To get her husband back into school to complete his degree in graphic design and to concentrate on her family plans, Ratliff returned to Orem. 

“But I wasn’t going to waste money on school,” Ratliff remembers. “I didn’t really need a degree to keep nannying. It wasn’t necessary — my experience spoke for itself, but I was so close, literally only a semester away. That’s when we found the university studies degree. And the reason I even looked at that was because I got an email from UVU and information about the grant they offered. If I would have had to pay for school, I wouldn’t have gone. I reached out, and they told me I was a perfect candidate for this.”

Working with a counselor, Ratliff fashioned her own pathway to her diploma. She worked out a schedule with her remaining needed credits and got a bachelor’s degree in university studies. 

“I applied for the grant and got into the university studies program,” Ratliff says. “It’s so wonderful and helps so many people. With the credits I already had, I was able to create a bachelor’s degree with the remaining classes in things I was passionate about, like childcare. So I fashioned my own little degree and I loved school. I loved the classes I took — applied parenting, early childhood education, and child psychology, and it was wonderful. I also did an internship at Timpanogos Regional Hospital in the NICU and Well-Baby Nursery, and it was amazing. The internship services team was amazing to work with and found what was literally the perfect internship for me. 

“I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in April with close to 200 credits — and I’m really good at Jeopardy because I know a little bit about a lot of things. But there is no way I would have considered going back to school without the Returning Wolverine grant.”

While Ratliff emphasizes that her future employment may not be dependent on having a degree, “I feel proud of myself for finally finishing, to be able to say ‘I finished and I finally did it’ — it feels so good to have accomplished that.”

Ratliff said initially she thought walking at commencement as a 32-year-old might “feel silly,” but now says, “it feels so nice. It feels nice to be celebrated for your hard work, because getting a bachelor’s degree is hard work. It’s good to celebrate and know UVU is proud of you. I hope more people apply because it is life changing.”

Ivie says the grant money for this special group of students — set aside from both internal funds and state funding — is made available to the vast majority of those who apply, and the amount is based on the number of credit hours being taken each semester.

Medina says retention mentors are assigned to each Returning Wolverine to reinforce their decision and to help them integrate back into their studies. 

“We reassure them that they are not the only ones that are coming back. They are not going to come back and only see 18-year-olds straight out of high school — there are going to be other students like them in the classroom, and it’s OK,” she says. “It’s OK that you stopped, but it’s not OK that you not finish this degree. And another common thing that happens is that they really want their degree. They don’t like the feeling that they started something and didn’t finish it.”

“It’s impressive how excited they get when they see UVU reaching out,” Medina continues. “They know that the institution genuinely cares about them. There’s that realization that what you do matters to us, so let’s help you come back, let’s help you get where you want to go. It’s not just the student who’s investing in their education — the institution invests in their education, too. Seeing that empowerment of the student and how excited they are to return and graduate has been really rewarding.”

Illustration by Adam Turner