Like many nontraditional students, Jennifer Porter returned to college decades after finishing high school—four decades to be exact.
Married with three adult children who all have successful careers, the 59-year-old is working on her Bachelor of Art in Administrative Leadership. The online format is a perfect fit for Porter, who, unlike many of her classmates, faces some extra challenges.
Porter is hearing impaired and experiences essential tremors, a neurological condition that causes involuntary shaking, mostly in her hands. The condition prevents her from being able to take notes during class.
“I decided to try school at the University of Oklahoma at the encouragement of my counselor at the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services (OKDRS). I chose an online school, because I wear hearing aids but still can’t hear or understand everything when people are talking,” Porter said. “Attending class in person would not work for me.”
Like a lot of her classmates, Porter put off going to college because of other responsibilities. She earned an associate degree in music in 1978 from Calhoun College in Athens, Alabama, but she didn’t have the money to continue toward a bachelor’s degree. She got married in 1980 and had her first child in 1984, and two more children quickly followed. After deciding to homeschool, going to college no longer seemed possible.
Although she wasn’t working or going to school when her children were young, Porter used that time to become a self-taught webmaster and graphic artist.
“I wanted to have skills so I could get a job when the kids were old enough for me to work fulltime,” Porter said. “As our children got older and left home, I began looking for work and landed a job at a local TV station as their webmaster. That was my dream job, and it blossomed into also working with analytics.”
“I’ve learned that when I am at my worst, I can still go on. I can still muster up some sort of willingness to keep trying even when I want to totally give up."
For seven years, Porter worked in the newsroom and sales and promotions department, coding for the station’s website and analyzing the digital information that went with it. In 2015, the station went through restructuring, and her job was eliminated. She searched for months but couldn’t find anything, even with the help of OKDRS.
“They told me that I needed a bachelor’s degree for anyone to even look at my resume, let alone be hired for a job,” she said. “At first I didn’t think I could do a bachelor’s degree, but I agreed to take classes at Tulsa Tech to get a certificate in data analysis, which I finished in November 2016.”
After some thought, she did a web search for degrees and found OU Extended Campus and the Administrative Leadership program. All the courses appealed to her, and OKDRS agreed to help pay for her schooling. The time seemed right.
“My husband and family have been telling me for years that I should go back to school to finish my bachelor’s degree, but I couldn’t bring myself to go because we couldn’t afford to pay back any loans. I didn’t want to cause my family to go into debt,” she said. “When OKDRS told me they would pay for the schooling and books, I thought I could finally do it without causing my family to go into debt for me.”
At that time, her husband was ill and in need of a liver transplant. In December 2016, just after Porter enrolled for the Spring 2017 semester, he underwent surgery for a new liver. Porter spent her first two semesters at Extended Campus juggling school work while caring for her husband as he recovered.
“I don’t really know how I managed to go to school while my husband was recovering from his transplant, because what he was going through was very difficult,” she said. “I was his main caretaker, had lost my job, couldn’t find work and had no idea how to function with these kinds of stressors and pressure. The truth is, I think going to school through all of that helped keep me sane.”
Porter just finished her third semester with a 4.0 grade point average and is looking forward to graduating next spring. Although she’s between careers and isn’t sure what the future holds, Porter is grateful for the online courses and the opportunity to finish her bachelor’s degree.
“I’ve learned that when I am at my worst, I can still go on. I can still muster up some sort of willingness to keep trying even when I want to totally give up because life is unbearable,” she said. “I’ve also learned that it’s OK to talk about what I’ve been through. At first, I didn’t want to tell anyone how old I was, that my husband was ill or how hard it was. Eventually, I opened up a little bit, talked about it and applied the lessons I was learning to the subjects I was studying. I felt that if the classes couldn’t be applied to real life, then what worth would they be for me. So, I took a risk and opened up. No one rejected me because I’m older and going through such difficult times.”
Porter said her husband is doing much better now, and he may be able to return to work soon. She hopes to do the same.
“I want to change the world, but if I can’t do that I’d like to use my skills to teach businesses and individuals how to communicate better,” Porter said. “I’d like to train people in how to deal with conflict and how to talk with difficult people without responding in anger. I want to give people the tools they need to understand where other people are coming from, because these days everyone is speaking so loudly they’ve forgotten how to listen.”