Jaguar Aims to Lead the Pack
More adults are enrolling in college than ever before. Nationally, 40 percent of students at American universities are age 25 or older, but serving the returning student is not new to Governors State University.
GSU has traditionally offered the flexibility and convenience that adult learners need to reach their academic goals. In fact, that’s what attracted Stephanie Clarkson to GSU. In many ways, Clarkson exemplifies the returning learner at GSU. She’s a 35-year-old senior who carries a 3.85 GPA. She’s also a student athlete.
On November 19, Clarkson, who expects to graduate in December, will represent the Jaguars at her final collegiate competition, the 36th National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Women’s Cross Country National Championship. In the short two-year existence of GSU Athletics, no student-athlete has ever participated in a national championship. Clarkson will compete against 300 of the best runners in the NAIA, representing 96 schools.
Clarkson’s road to this race and earning her degree has been long and winding. “Growing up, I was always involved in athletics. I started running cross country in high school. My senior year, I was recruited by Ashland University in Ohio. I ran there for two seasons, and then just being a knucklehead kid, I basically quit the team and stopped going to school because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” Clarkson said.
She left school and entered the workforce. Clarkson eventually found her way into marketing and settled into a career. “My company was acquired after five years, and I found myself pigeonholed because I didn’t have my degree. It hit me in the face—I needed to get it done now. I contacted several colleges and coaches in the Chicago area, but when I came to GSU’s campus, I loved it immediately,” Clarkson said of her decision to become a Jaguar.
Formerly an upper-division school, GSU has an established tradition of helping adult learners move along their chosen degree paths. Washington Monthly recently ranked GSU No. 26 in its national ranking of the best four-year colleges for adult learners. At Governors State, older students aren’t just welcomed into classrooms; they’re embraced by the university community.
“I had a beautiful opportunity to meet with the coach and [Dean of Students] Dr. Valente and they recommended GSU’s Interdisciplinary Studies program. I went home, researched it, and saw it was a great opportunity.”
The IDS program allows students—particularly adult learners—to tailor their degree to their needs and even receive credit for previous professional experience in their chosen field. It’s a program designed for flexibility, and Clarkson needed flexibility. This past summer her husband, Dan Gale, accepted a job offer in Baltimore. Married in June, the newlyweds were going to be moving.
Gale didn’t want his career move to be the end of his wife’s dreams. He and Clarkson contacted Coach Kevin Kreden, and they talked about the options. GSU wanted to keep Clarkson, and Clarkson wanted to keep GSU, so the long-distance runner became a long-distance student athlete. GSU helped Clarkson transition into an online course schedule, and she began commuting from Baltimore for meets.
“It’s a unique situation,” Clarkson said, and laughed. “The extended learning community is really great, though. Campus classes were a diverse mix of students, and so are the online courses.”
In less than one week, Clarkson will take one last flight to compete for GSU. And then in another month she’ll receive her degree. As one of six women chosen from the Chicagoland Collegiate Athlete Conference, and the only athlete from GSU, it’s certain that no matter the outcome of the race on Saturday, Clarkson will cross her finish line.
“Everyone’s story is different,” Clarkson said. “This is just how I did it. I had set a goal when I started running again of qualifying for the national meet. That part is behind me. With this race, I just get to go out and run my hardest and prove what I can do.”
And demonstrate, in dramatic and dynamic fashion, what many of the students at GSU do every single day: work to make their dreams a reality at an institution that affords them the support and flexibility to succeed.