Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Photos by Kelly Gorham

Second Life October 12, 2012 by Evelyn Boswell • Published 10/12/12

Returning students prove it's never too late to make a career change
J.D. Moore, 67, will always be a doctor. That's not a calling you set aside until you die, says the Lewistown resident who spent 40 years as a physician, both as a general and vascular surgeon and as an emergency room physician.

Even though he still helps out occasionally in a Lewistown clinic, Moore officially retired in August 2011 and moved to Bozeman three weeks later to pursue his Master of Fine Arts degree in the science and natural history filmmaking program at Montana State University. A long-time amateur videographer and photographer, he originally wanted to make medical training films to prepare people who want to work in the hospital he is helping start in Haiti. But he is now considering making a series of films to help resolve some of the conflicts between wildlife and humans.

"It's been a real interesting process for me to go into an area of study which is so different from practicing medicine," Moore said. "The people are different--very creative, very artistic. They have these ideas that just constantly amaze me. I'm just an old black-and-white country ER doctor."

Moore, now entering his second year of the filmmaking program, was one of 1,965 graduate students at MSU in the fall of 2011. MSU officials say they don't know how many of those students--average age 33--came to MSU to switch careers. Nor does anyone know how many of the 2,546 undergraduates who were 25 and older and seeking bachelor's degrees came to replace dusty dreams with new ones.

But among those who did, some wanted to become nurses. Others wanted to be engineers or teachers. Retirees came looking for new challenges. Employees in an uncertain economy hoped to secure their futures by updating skills or pursuing new paths.

"It's never too late to return," said Carina Beck, who oversees MSU's Office of Student Success. "We know that a graduating student will earn more, live longer and provide a better quality of life for their offspring."

Among the many MSU programs that help students succeed is a new program called "Return to Learn." Aimed at students who left MSU without graduating but now want to complete their degrees, the program offers career coaching, tutoring and other free services, Beck said. In the first six months of the program, 60 people either returned to school or were contemplating their options. Some had left MSU as recently as a year ago, and others longer than that.

Among the online programs MSU offers is Northern Plains Transition to Teaching through the MSU College of Education, Health and Human Development. Academic and Student Services Adviser Jamie O'Callaghan said the program began in 2002 with a federal Transition to Teaching grant of $4.2 million and is now supported completely by tuition. Approximately 600 people who have had professional careers in other fields have entered the program so far, with many of those having been engineers, journalists and research scientists. NPTT students have included a former fighter pilot, an outdoor guide and an aeronautical engineer.

The average age of NPTT students used to be 37, but it has recently fallen below that, O'Callaghan said. Students who enter the program must have at least five years of experience in a non-teaching career.

"They offer a lot and make fabulous teachers because they have had amazing careers and experiences," O'Callaghan said.

A new online program starting this fall will allow nearly anyone with two years of college to complete a bachelor's degree in liberal studies. Peg Wherry, director of online and distance learning in MSU's Extended University, said the students who were admitted or inquired about the program so far have various reasons for their interest. Some want to finish something they had committed to a long time ago. Others are working toward job security or advancement.

"There's a pretty strong flavor of being grateful for the opportunity," she said, adding that of the first two dozen students admitted to the program, one-third are returning to MSU. The rest began their education somewhere else.

An MSU program that's filled with students switching careers is an accelerated program where students--after they complete their prerequisites--earn a bachelor's degree in nursing in slightly under 15 months instead of the traditional 2 ½ years. Gretchen McNeely, associate dean for undergraduate programs and associate professor in the MSU College of Nursing, said the first class of 16 students started in May 2011 and graduated in August 2012 after taking the same classes as students in the traditional program.

Some students in the program were teachers in their previous careers. Others were in the fine arts. Some had just finished college for the first time, and others were older.

McNeely said some of the challenges they faced were "being organized and planning and making sure their kids are being taken care of."

Many MSU students pursuing new careers would agree. Some have different perspectives. ■

J.D. Moore
Science and Natural History Filmmaking

Doctors are perpetual students, but returning to college 44 years after earning his bachelor's degree in English literature was daunting, Moore said.

Not only did he have to learn how to study again, but he discovered he had exchanged the chaotic life of a doctor for an even more chaotic path of a student filmmaker. Instead of seeing his wife every day, he returned home twice a semester and talked to her every evening by cell phone.

But he and the other six members of his cohort get along "fabulously," Moore said. Although those other students are in their 40s and 20s, "They are the nicest bunch of kids. It's really a pleasure to be around them. They are so smart."

As a doctor, he tried to resolve emergencies and stop the chaos, but filmmakers are different, he said. "They thrive on it. They promote it. They revel in it."

This fall Moore will have an interesting roommate. His youngest daughter is enrolling at MSU and plans
to live with him.

"We are both thoroughly excited about learning together at MSU," the elder Moore said.

Dan Wussow
Mechanical engineering

The first time Dan Wussow earned a bachelor's degree, he majored in aeronautics at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. He went through ROTC and flight training at the same time.

This time, Wussow is majoring in mechanical engineering at MSU. He is 31, married, the father of two boys and a former Air Force captain who spent a little more than five months in Afghanistan. "You have to be really, really proficient at time management. That's pretty much the only way you can make it," he said of his dual life as a family man and student.

While in the military, he learned to appreciate technology and the way it incorporated math and science, Wussow said. Since engineers focus on those fields, he decided to earn a degree in engineering. He returned to school in the fall of 2011 and would eventually like to work in a laboratory researching propulsion systems, specifically related to space technology.

The lessons he learned in the military have carried over to college, Wussow said. Perseverance in the face of adversity is one. So is persistence. An amateur practices something until he gets it right, while a professional practices something until he can't get it wrong, Wussow said.

"I'm really glad I came back," he said.

Jill Ellison

College is definitely different the second time around, but it has been "lovely," said Jill Ellison, 36, a student in MSU's new accelerated nursing program.

"I'm more motivated. I find time management is much more effective," she said.

Ellison grew up on a beef and grain farm in Canada and earned her bachelor's degree in agriculture in 2000. She worked in pork marketing in Manitoba for 10 years and then as a stay-at-home mom in Bozeman for three.

Not completely satisfied with a career in agriculture, Ellison entered MSU's accelerated nursing program in May 2011. She started classes the same day as her four-year-old son, Hugh, started preschool. She graduated in August 2012 with a bachelor's degree in nursing and is hoping to work in a medical surgical unit in Bozeman.

Ellison said she appreciates the "extremely supportive" Bozeman community for providing training opportunities. She believes she has made lifelong friends of other students.

"I'm really happy," Ellison said. "I'm excited to enter the field and have a chance to put the skills I have learned into practice."

Catherine Savery
Northern Plains Transition to Teaching

An opera singer since 1993, Catherine Savery has sung in Italy, Sweden and New York City. She has performed in Carnegie Hall and won the prestigious Jenny Lind competition.

As thrilling as it sounds, Savery said the life of an opera singer can be lonely. Tired of living out of a suitcase, Savery joined her husband, Matthew, in Bozeman and toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher. She worked for a conservation group for a year, then enrolled in an MSU program called Northern Plains Transition to Teaching.

The two-year online program sometimes had her studying until 2 a.m., Savery said. Completing a teacher practicum on top of that was exhausting. But learning from master teachers and teaching under their supervision confirmed her decision to become a teacher.

Savery graduated in 2010, 13 years after earning her undergraduate degree at Vassar College. The opera singer is now a full-time choir teacher at Chief Joseph Middle School in Bozeman. She still performs, but her focus is her students.

"I love it," said Savery, 37. "It's great to be interacting with kids and watch them really start to understand how music works and share that joy of music."

John Marian
Native American Studies

John Marian, 39, was working in the mortgage insurance industry when the company that employed him lost nearly $1 billion in a year. Receiving a "tin parachute" from his job in California, Marian took stock of his life, considered buying a franchise, did some volunteer work and sought others for advice. The outcome was that he realized he wanted to enrich his knowledge about the Native American perspective, with a goal to ultimately teach at the college level, Marian said. To work toward that goal, he investigated graduate programs and enrolled at MSU. He moved to Montana in 2010 and expects to earn his master's degree in Native American Studies in December 2012.

His heritage is Italian and English, but he realized that Native American Studies was the natural outcome of his life experience and quest for deeper spiritual connection, Marian said. Besides working in banking and in mortgages, he currently owns a small handyman company. He volunteers with the Bozeman-based Red Feather Development Group to build sustainable homes on Indian reservations.

Graduate school requires a different skill set than the financial field, but Marian believes the decision to completely change his life and career was "part of the plan."

"It has been an amazing experience," he said.

Linda Simpson
Food and nutrition

Linda Simpson, 70, could be retired by now, but she said people live longer these days and she has other plans. The North Carolina native who has lived in Montana since 2003 left her job as spa director at the Yellowstone Naturopathic Clinic in Billings to work on a bachelor's degree in food and nutrition at MSU in Bozeman.

Simpson already had a bachelor's degree in business management science and a doctorate in natural medicine, but her education needed to be updated so she could move forward, Simpson said. She plans to become a registered dietician and possibly open her own practice and conduct research after graduating in 2014.

Simpson has youthful interests, but sitting in class with undergraduates who are 19 and 20 is different than when she took graduate courses with 35-year-olds in Billings. To succeed, Simpson studies ahead and uses tutors and counselors in MSU's Office of Student Success. It's important not to lag behind, she said.

"Nothing is really given to us as an easy path," Simpson said. "We have to forge ahead."