July 27, 2005 - When Tina Lopez was in high school, she was much more interested in parties and boys than she was in science and math, a preoccupation not all that uncommon for a teenage girl.

She had a tough time getting through her four years because of those distractions, and when she did finally graduate and move on to college she lasted about three semesters before calling it quits.

By then in her early 20s, she became a single mother of two who again had other things on her mind than finishing school.

After a decade spent working too hard for too little, Lopez, at the age of 29, decided it was time to try her hand at academia once more.

"I wanted a change for myself, for my children and our lifestyle," she said, explaining her decision to join the throngs of teenagers in the halls of Pima Community College Northwest Campus as one of more than 1,000 students her age or older.

In the two years since it opened its doors, PCC's Northwest campus has become more than a place for freshly graduated high school students who aren't ready for the hustle-bustle of the big universities. It is a college that is willing to work with students and area businesses to provide programs that educate people for the workforce.

Earning a degree from PCC will mean a change in income for the now 31-year-old Lopez, who for the past three and a half years has worked at a laundromat to make ends meet. More money isn't all that she said she is after, though, in her goal to become an administrative assistant.

"I knew I was not living up to my potential," she said, explaining her decision to go back to school. "I could feel it."

Across town from the Lopez home, Polly Method rises with the sun each morning to run with her 14-year-old daughter and her dogs.

While she is not as fast as she used to be, she can still put 10 to 15 miles of desert behind her on a good day and loves to feel the earth move under her feet as she whizzes by saguaros and housing developments full of slumbering people. The health benefits of the workouts are important, but for Method this morning ritual is time for her to get some perspective on her life and to prepare her mind and body for the day ahead.

She moved from Kansas to Tucson 11 years ago, leaving an abusive marriage in her wake. She arrived in the Old Pueblo with her three children, with no friends or family nearby to help them financially or emotionally. She had gone to college for a few years when she was younger and decided she would try her hand at it again, but with young children, two jobs, very little money, and no support network, it wasn't long before she called it quits.

Then, at age 42, Method heard about a program that helps women in challenging life situations manage college life. She decided to go back to school to become a paralegal. With two girls in high school and a son in college, she enrolled at PCC Northwest Campus after being away from education for about a decade.

"It's tough, but it is possible," she said, explaining the difficulties of being a working mom in college. "I tell people who think it's impossible that if I can do it, you can do it."

She hopes her interests in research and criminology will eventually lead her into a career in the district attorney's office.

"I'd recommend (PCC) to anyone. If there are other women out there who need direction, who are divorced and don't know what to do next, Pima will help them," she said.

While Method is looking for a career change, Cathleen Knight hopes to advance in the field she has worked in for some time now.

Knight loves her job at the Tucson Hilton El Conquistador Golf and Tennis Resort, where she has worked as a banquet server for more than seven years. About a year ago, she got a second server job at the Westin La Paloma. She grew up in the small town of Mammoth, north of Tucson, and moved closer to the city a few years ago.

At 26 years old, she decided this was the year to go back to school and earn a degree in hotel and restaurant management.

Knight has never taken a stab at college full time before. She had been slowly chipping away at a degree since 1999, taking a class here and a class there without putting any real dedication to it.

The combination of a second income from her marriage last year and tuition reimbursement from her employer made it possible for her to go back to school full time this year, and she decided to seize the opportunity provided at PCC to earn a bachelor's degree.

"It's a way to extend myself and work my way up," she said. The hotel and resort industry is hot in the area, and Knight said it made sense for her to stick where she had experience and try to grow within the field.

"I really enjoy my job," she said. "It's a fast-paced environment, which really fits my personality. I like to satisfy the guests."

Lopez, Method and Knight. Three very different women, of different ages and different life experiences. What they have in common is finding programs at PCC's Northwest Campus that made going back to school as an adult possible.

As its president, Anne-Marie McCartan, explains, the campus is making its name by providing flexible programs that educate people for the jobs in the Northwest and by offering flexibility and special programming that help address the unique needs of adult learners.

"The Northwest Campus is designing programs to meet local needs," McCartan said, explaining the college's mission.

The campus does this by offering specialized programs that are aimed at the businesses and industry that exist in the area. For example, the Hotel and Restaurant Management program, of which Knight is a part, is one-of-a-kind for Tucson, offering a four-year degree in coordination with Northern Arizona University. Students who graduate with a degree will be ready to work in any of the area's hotels or resorts, filing a variety of jobs. Knight said that where she works there are several other people who also are working on a degree in hotel and restaurant management from PCC.

This fall, the college will begin offering a new certificate that directly responds to another need in the community. The massage therapy certificate will be the only one of its kind offered by a public institution in the Tucson area.

"We want to build programs at this campus that address the economic base of the Northwest," McCartan said. This means training programs that cater to resorts, recreation, health and medicine, and, to some extent, the biotechnical field.

Because PCC wants to help train the Tucson workforce, it has become specialized in working with adult learners, or what some call nontraditional students. These students can be defined as those who delay entering college after graduating from high school, those who attend college primarily as part-time students, those who work full time while going to school, and single parents.

According to statistics gathered by the U.S. Department of Education, 39 percent of all post-secondary students were 25 or older in 1999, compared with 28 percent in 1970. An analysis of enrollment trends conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that many of those identified as nontraditional students would characterize themselves first as employees, then as students.

At PCC, those numbers run a little higher than average, with about 30 percent of the students who attended PCC Northwest 30 years old or older. Another 45 percent of students fall between the ages of 20 and 29.

They are at the college for different reasons, McCartan said. Some are entering a college setting for the first time. Others are returning to school to finish a degree already started in another time or place or are changing their careers or obtaining additional training to stay on top of their particular fields. And there is a segment of the community that attends out of interest in learning another language or in using a computer program or painting using a particular technique. All of these different types of students will find what they need at the Northwest Campus, McCartan said.

"What Pima can do for adults is just amazing," she said.

Several area businesses are taking advantage of having the campus in the Northwest to train their current employees and to recruit new ones.

Ventana Medical Systems, in Oro Valley, developed a partnership with Pima Community College to train histotechnologists. Histotechnologists, or histologic technologists, prepare slices of tissue on microscope slides for examination by pathologists to identify or diagnose disease. In 2002, Ventana donated instruments and chemicals to the college to help start a program that would train these specialized technicians. At Ventana, histotechnologists are responsible for performing complex procedures for processing tissue during product development and beyond. The program at PCC places students at the Ventana facility for internships, and the company has hired several of the students as a result of participation in the program. The average salary is $31,500, although histotechnologists can make upwards of $40,000 a year.

Roy Mayoral, a senior manager at Ventana, said partnering with the college is a smart way to recruit new employees.

"It makes sense to grow your own talent," he said. The PCC histology program, which is offered through the West Campus, is one of a handful in the U.S.

Many experienced histotechnologists are reaching retirement age. Ventana spokeswoman Kimberly Schmitz said there is a high demand for new professionals in this field and Ventana is committed to aiding the industry and the community via its participation in this program, "adding more talent to the pool."

Ventana human resources vice president Denise vanZijll said continuing education for the histologists, and for many of the other employees at Ventana, is important and with the PCC Northwest campus so close, getting that training is more convenient.

"Many of our employees use the campus to go back to school," she said. "Many of them live in Oro Valley, and having access is great."

Ventana also uses the Northwest Campus to provide instruction in English as a second language to employees. The company has twice offered an ESL course, with the PCC instructor coming to the Ventana facility to make it easy for employees. VanZijll said the company plans to offer the class again and is planning a Spanish as a second language course as well. She said the training helps employees and supervisors communicate more effectively.

Medical and technical field job opportunities in the Northwest abound, and so programs aimed at readying workers for these field are a top priority at PCC.

McCartan said the Northwest campus, along with the west campus, also is working with Northwest Medical Center to get more nurses through training programs and into its hospitals.

She said people at the campus are working on writing a grant that would bring in the funding needed to get a program off the ground at her campus.

"It will fast track people into registered nursing," she said. "We'll be able to grow our own nurses here."

Jan Offret, the chief nursing officer at Northwest Medical Center, said the nursing shortage in Tucson is a top concern for hospitals, and for the past year she has been working closely with PCC to develop training programs.

The hospital has a program that takes its existing licensed practical nurses and provides them additional training to become registered nurses. The hospital pays the nurses' tuition and also provides them with paid time away from work to study. The PCC nursing program is at the west campus, but many students use the Northwest campus to complete their prerequisite courses. The hospital also tries to recruit new people to nursing through job fairs.

Offret said that nursing is a tough field with long hours and no breaks on holidays or weekends but that there are many adult students who choose it as a career.

"We have quite a few people, men and women, who are going into nursing as a second career," she said. "People who used to run a business, or even owned their own, who are looking for a change."

She said the proximity and flexibility of PCC and the willingness of the college to partner with places such as the hospital make it an asset to the community.

While there is an effort to develop programs that train students for specific fields at PCC Northwest, there also are programs that have been developed to supplement an individual's education by offering him or her needed support for life issues that can affect his or her education.

When Lopez enrolled at PCC Northwest, it was a small, leased space in a plaza in Marana. There, she found a close-knit group of students, accessible professors, and an affordable program that would lead her into a career as an administrative assistant.

Even though the PCC Northwest Campus has changed dramatically since Lopez first walked through its doors, she said it has retained its family-like community atmosphere, which makes it less overwhelming than a large university might be.

With a hectic family life and years spent away from school, Lopez decided to take it slow when she first enrolled, taking a few classes at a time to see how much she could handle. Because she had taken 10 years off, she had some refreshing to do. She needed to get back up to speed with her math skills, in particular.

"I was 31 and going into pre-Algebra. I was nervous and not sure I could do it," she said.

She also had three bad semesters from her first try at higher education to rectify in order to qualify again for financial aid. She has gone into some debt but said advisors at PCC have helped her find scholarships and other financial resources.

It made it a little easier for Lopez to get through school knowing she is not the only person her age hitting the books.

"I look around, and I see people my age. I never once have been the oldest one in my class," she said.

The campus's "self-paced" Web-based classes allow her to work from home or from work when she needs to and allow her to work a little or a lot, depending on the amount of time she has.

As a server, Knight also has an unpredictable routine that makes showing up to a regularly scheduled class sometimes difficult. She never knows when she will work mornings, lunches or nights, part of the day or all day. And the number of hours she works depends on how many banquets are scheduled.

Knight also has taken advantage of the self-paced classes on the Web and plans to use them even more now that she is full time.

"It gives me the opportunity to do work on my own time, whenever I have it," she said. "It really, really helps."

"You still have deadlines but you don't have to go to a class at a set time."

"It's a juggle, it's a challenge, but it is possible. Pima really works with you to find ways to make it happen," she said.

The PROGRESS! program was started to help single women who were going back to school after some time away, but it has since expanded to take in all types of students. McCartan said the program is for any student who is trying to balance the demands of life outside school with studies and for any student who needs to learn "college skills."

"It's really a support group," she said.

Method was able to use the program to get herself back in school mode and to help herself set achievable goals to use for motivation.

"It helped me finish what I started," Method said of PROGRESS!.

Once a week, she met with other women and an instructor to talk about myriad topics, from building self-esteem to finding financial aid.

"Here I was surrounded by women of all different ages from all different backgrounds, none of whom would have probably ever met if it hadn't been for that class," she said.

One week, the women got out art supplies and designed inspirational posters for themselves. Method made one about achieving her goals, complete with pictures of her children to remind her about why she had decided to go back to school.

Months later, the poster hangs in her bathroom at home, where she can reflect each morning as she gets ready to face the next day.

It's not easy to go back to school as an adult, but for someone like Method there are days when it seems impossible.

"I cry sometimes because it's very frustrating," she said, explaining the challenges in being a student, a mom and an employee in the same day.

Method has shed tears about how she will pay for the things her children want and need, like the camp her daughter wants to attend this summer. She has a house in Continental Ranch in Marana, and a mortgage to pay. The family has plunged into debt in order to finance her education, and there are times when they have to live off credit.

But Method said one of her main motivations in returning to school was to earn better pay.

"I was tired of working two jobs and not having any money," she said. "I said I have to make a change."

And PCC has helped her manage these struggles, with instructors always available to talk through tough decisions and to direct her to resources that might help.

"It's hard, but if things get rough there has always been someone there to talk to," she said, echoing what many students at the campus said about their PCC experience.

PCC's vision for itself is "to provide access to learning without the limits of time, place or distance." Those are important considerations for most any student attending, but they are particularly salient for the adult who is squeezing classes into an already full daily schedule.

Both students who attend classes there and employers who use the school to find a skilled workforce agree that PCC Northwest has been seeing out that vision to be nearly all things to everyone, and they anticipate a partnership between the college and community that continues to grow stronger in the future.

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