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Business professionals join kids heading back to school

Paul Acheson climbed the ranks to become general manager of a manufacturing plant without a college degree. When Acheson took over the reins of Kuhlman Electric in Crystal Springs five years ago, there were 160 employees. Today, there are more than 400.

“Our company is definitely in a growth mode and it’s great to add jobs to the community,” Acheson said. Kuhlman Electric Corp. manufactures power and instrument transformers.

Acheson is joining the ranks of working adults who are returning to school to pursue degrees in liberal studies. Millsaps College in Jackson and Mississippi College in Clinton are two area schools that have successfully developed and implemented liberal studies programs geared to working adults.

Janet Langley, acting director of the adult degree program at Millsaps College, said adult study programs are geared to people who didn’t get their college education in the traditional format.

“We started the adult degree program in 1982 because we knew there were working adults who got married, were in the military, started jobs or for one reason or another didn’t get to finish their college education,” said Langley. “Most adult students are upgrading credentials for jobs they are currently in, or for job advancement. We’ve also noticed the trend for graduates to go on to grad school or law school. Once they get back into the rhythm of going to school, they don’t want to lose momentum.”

In a typical semester, more than 100 adult students are enrolled in the undergraduate and graduate adult studies program. Even though there have typically been more part-time than full-time students, the ratio is about even, Langley said.

Debbie Norris, dean of graduate studies at Mississippi College, said the school’s masters of liberal studies 36-hour program “is excellent for the adult learner.”

“Our master’s courses are for working people, so we offer them at night,” said Norris. “Many of our adults who have been working and want to continue their education — some just for the sake of knowing more — use this degree program.”

More than 650 students are enrolled in MC’s various master’s degree programs – 13 degrees in 25 majors. Art, music, communications, political science, history and English are some of the disciplines that fall under the broad-based MLS program, Norris said. Established in 1826, Mississippi College is the state’s oldest college.

Acheson, 47, of Madison, said rising above the lack of a college education was “a challenge of beating the odds.”

“But I was ready to pursue my lifelong dream of a college education,” said Acheson. “By the age of 21, I was married, had two children and two jobs. I couldn’t even think about fitting school into my schedule at that point, so I worked hard to get ahead.”

After the children were “grown and gone,” Acheson started brushing up on his computer skills and attended a few classes at a local community college. Then he signed up for the adult learning program at Millsaps College, he said.

“Millsaps (College) is located between the plant in Crystal Springs and my home in Madison so instead of driving home every night, I just make a detour,” he said. “There are six of us from Kuhlman Electric who are studying at night. Four are in the MBA program and two of us are in the undergrad program. When I finish my bachelor’s, I’ll roll right into the MBA program.”

Dee Wilson, who will graduate with a liberal studies undergraduate degree from Millsaps College this summer, joined MCI WorldCom three years ago as a senior internal auditor. Before that, she was with SkyTel. Both companies paid tuition assistance, a benefit she says is “a big, big perk.”

“Because the companies paid for continuing education, it made a big difference in which school I chose,” she said. “It took a long time taking two courses a semester, but it’s very much worth it. Now I’m ready for the MBA program.”

William “Buddy” Givens, 41, of Natchez, president of the adult student association at Millsaps College, changed careers after his job at MP&L was downsized.

“I was at a very comfortable job that I believed I would retire from,” Givens said. “I never had thoughts of leaving MP&L. When they downsized and closed the local office, I didn’t have a choice but to seek employment elsewhere. I found a job in insurance and did very well at it, but I did not enjoy it. One night, my wife and I talked about what I was going to do with the rest of my life and it was her idea for me to return to school.”

Some days, Givens packs lunch for his children, ages 5 and 7. Sometimes, they pack lunch for him while he juggles the daily commute, school, studies and parenting. When he finishes, he’d like to teach high school history, he said.

“I made a total career change and I’ve been in school for several years now,” Givens said. “When it’s all over, it will have been well worth it.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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