Sunday, September 19, 2021

Adult learners find their place in a pandemic

Tosin Ajayi has always loved working with computers. She’s amazed by technology in general because in Nigeria, where Ajayi lived until 2009, access was limited.
“I like finding ways to make a cell phone work easier and do what I want it to do,” she said. “I’ve always had that curiosity.”

Ajayi, 32, enrolled at WGU Indiana, an online university that caters to working adults, in 2020 to earn a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity. She first went back to school in 2016 at Ivy Tech and has had two children since then.

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t spare Ajayi’s job in information technology, which she lost in May 2020.

“I didn’t know what I would do with myself,” she said.

Going back to school can be difficult, especially for someone who’s trying to navigate between classes and a job, all while raising children. The proliferation of online courses has expanded access, but it still takes a considerable amount of time and energy.

Ajayi got a significant boost from WGU Indiana, which awarded her a $10,000 scholarship. If she has her way, Ajayi will one day be a cybersecurity expert who tries hacking into systems to show companies — maybe even countries such as her home Nigeria — where they need to improve.

“I’m working toward a better life for myself and for my children,” she said.
Ajayi may have become closer to the exception than the rule by deciding to further her education during a pandemic.

Jerry Haffner, assistant director for adult education at the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, said the state’s approximately 55 providers have seen a reduction in students going back to school for their high school equivalency or technical training since the start of the pandemic.

Part of that is due to practical issues such as stay-at-home orders, but Haffner said the pandemic has also made some people back away from commitments that aren’t essential in favor of those that are: taking care of a family, helping students navigate e-learning, etc.

“Some basic needs have need to be met first,” he said.

Alison Bell, chancellor at WGU Indiana, said it can be intimidating for working adults to return to college — pandemic or not — because of the perception that college is supposed to be for younger people without too many other responsibilities.

Returning learners wonder if they’ll be the oldest in their class or if they still have what it takes to succeed.

Another challenge, Bell said, is a disconnect between the education and corporate worlds when it comes to language. Take “project management” as an example. A student can learn all the necessary skills and credentials, but it’s a lost opportunity if they can’t communicate those things in a way an employer will understand and appreciate.

“In higher ed, we’re just beginning to speak in skills language,” Bell said, “so how do they know if their degree translates to these specific skills?”

WGU Indiana recently received a $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment to help adults accurately communicate their skills and credentials to employers.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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