BY AMY LINDGREN '86
Ranging in age from 24 to 55 and beyond, Weekend College (WEC) students may be the most pragmatic of all learners at the College of St. Catherine. They are parents and employees and the caretakers for elderly relatives. They coordinate schedules months in advance to accommodate three-and-a-half-hour classes every other weekend, and the avalanche of homework those classes generate. When they make the decision to enroll in Weekend College, they are coming to finish degrees so they can earn promotions at work, or they're coming to start the degrees they never had time to pursue. What they do not come to Weekend College for is to be transformed, as a younger liberal arts student might. Transformation is the bonus.
Take Sheri Banitt, 45, of Cannon Falls. She will finish her communications degree in fall 2008, having gone from no college credits when she enrolled to needing only a few more classes now. It has been an intense, hectic period for the mother of two, particularly since she lives and works more than an hour from campus. When Banitt decided to obtain her bachelor's, she was focused on measurable goals. Five years later, she believes she got more from the program than she bargained for.
"I wanted to go to school to stretch my mind, but I didn't know how much it was going to grow my spirit," Banitt says. "I became a more informed, more confident person, and that translates into everything I do. And that was noticed on my job." Soon after starting the program, Banitt received a promotion at Midwest of Cannon Falls, Minnesota, where she has worked for several years. A second promotion followed, and she is now a national account specialist for the distributor of holiday products.
"It's an empowerment," she says of her WEC experience. "And that's what I hear from the other women in my class. It really makes a difference in their lives." For Deka Abdulle, the transformation is more of an evolution. An immigrant from Somalia, Abdulle moved to the United States at age 15. She earned an associate's degree in nursing at a community college, married at age 19 and had two children.
At 26, she is one of the younger WEC students, but she feels comfortable that her life experiences match up to those of her classmates.
Abdulle wants to return to Somalia someday and she chose nursing as the tool to let her accomplish that goal. She will finish her post-baccalaureate nursing degree through WEC in June and plans to go on for a graduate degree. In between the two programs, she says she will contribute her talents locally. "There will be no extra time on my hands," she says with a laugh. "One thing that's really encouraged at St. Catherine's is being an active member of your society. I want to be involved."
A new view of the world
Although Abdulle and Banitt come from two different worlds, and two different generations, they share a passion for St. Catherine's Weekend College. According to WEC Director Joan Robertson, '96,'99, this passion makes them typical of the 886 students currently enrolled in the program. The transformation they've undergone is also a common occurrence.
"I see it happen every year," Robertson says. "They are the same women in that they are still mothers, accountants, etc., but their view of themselves and how they fit in the world has changed." Robertson, herself a WEC graduate, underwent the same change when she came to St. Catherine's after working as a medical technologist. Her first degrees were an associate of science from St. Mary's Junior College (the predecessor to St. Catherine's Minneapolis campus) and a bachelor of science degree from the University of Minnesota. She returned to St. Kate's for a philosophy degree and then a master's in organizational leadership. "I recognized how limited my science training and background was," she says. "Everything I saw was through the lens of a microscope or test tube." Robertson's years as a student in two College programs, augmented by her earlier stint as an instructor and administrator on the Minneapolis campus, provide an empathetic, insider's perspective for her role as WEC director. For example, although WEC students receive the same academically rigorous education as students in other St. Catherine's programs, Robertson initially felt that the campus experience was lacking. She lobbied for more resources and attention for this student group, which makes up nearly one-fifth of the College's overall enrollment and one-third of the College's baccalaureate program. The results can be seen in small and large ways.
One symbolic but meaningful gesture is the flying of the international flags on the first day of each WEC term - just like the day in September when the flags fly in welcome for day-program students. Robertson strengthened relationships between WEC and other campus departments to ensure that essential services would be available on weekends. Gone are the leftover sandwiches in the Grill, replaced by a full food service when classes are scheduled." I felt I needed to say to the Weekend College students, 'We value you not only for your grades, but for your presence with us,'" Robertson says.
"There is more of a sense now that we are a Weekend College community." Even so, WEC students experience and access the campus differently from traditional students. "One of the biggest challenges that Weekend College students face is that they aren't here every day," says Kathy Eittreim, one of three academic advisors assigned to WEC students. "They have to make quite a bit of effort to use all the resources at the College." WEC students are quick to advocate for themselves, Eittreim notes, and to seek out the support of other students. Their cohesiveness among themselves is almost legendary, aided by potlucks and quarterly events on campus, as well as their propensity to e-mail and call each other between classes.
Changing with the times
St. Catherine's Weekend College was the second such program in the nation and the first in the Upper Midwest. WEC now offers 15 majors and five certificate programs. The program has grown consistently but slowly since its inception in 1979, when only four majors were offered to a starting group of 127 students; it now offers 15 majors and five certificate programs, and serves almost 900 students.
One reason for the steady-but-slow growth may be inherent to the students the program serves. WEC is vulnerable to larger economic conditions, Robertson notes. When a family experiences unemployment, for example, a student may respond by dropping her next WEC class.
These realities keep Robertson and her team vigilant for new ways to present WEC offerings and new ways to attract students. One successful initiative is to provide some parts of the nursing program on location in two local hospital systems. The first partnership, with Abbott Northwestern/Minneapolis Children's, had just begun when Robertson came on board in 2000; the second, with Fairview Health Services, started in 2006. In both instances, Robertson says, WEC saw enrollment spikes and attracted students who might otherwise not have thought of St. Catherine's. In fall 2008, one online session will be offered in every Weekend College class, so that students come to campus seven times in a term and "attend" class together once via technology. The goal is to ensure that students are fully functional in this essential business process. Robertson also wants to introduce WEC courses at the Minneapolis campus and provide more WEC offerings on weekday evenings. And she is confident that she will have the support on campus to continue innovating, based on past successes. "We have been very quick and responsive to the market," she notes. "We have permission to turn on a dime and deans who are fully supportive of us."
Currently, 2 percent of WEC students are men, and Robertson wants to increase that ratio. Men are not eligible to receive their first baccalaureate degree at St. Catherine's, but they may obtain a post-baccalaureate major or a graduate or associate degree at the College. "I'm a firm believer in the College's mission of women-only undergraduate education," she says. "But we need more men in these fields. We need more men in our education systems. We need men to relate to people in the healthcare systems." Scott Eddy '06 is typical of the male students Robertson envisions. In 2003, at age 50, Eddy heeded a voice inside that told him he could make a bigger difference. Upon seeing a small advertisement for Weekend College, he enrolled in the nursing program - a departure from his first career in business and human resources. Three years later, Eddy started as a staff nurse at Fairview Southdale Hospital.
Eddy was older than most classmates, and even his teachers, which felt a little sobering. But being the only male in most of his classes left the deeper impression. "For three and a half years, it was mostly just me and 22 of the most dedicated, talented women you would ever meet," he says. "Every time I say that, I almost choke up. I was a little apprehensive about what the environment would be like, but from the first instructor on, it was just an excellent learning experience. I can't say enough about my nursing cohort. I think there were three, maybe four, babies born that we all enjoyed. I like to think that lifelong friendships were made there."
A supportive learning environment WEC faculty members help sustain the supportive learning environment for which WEC is known. Megan Kalina, an assistant professor in business administration, teaches five different accounting classes in the day and weekend programs. A mother of three children, Kalina seems to be living the Weekend College life along with her students. "I'm very much into balancing," she says. "You recognize that your family is the priority but also that the work has to get done. So I may be a little more sensitive to [WEC students] and a little more accommodating. If we have to meet early in the morning, or talk after 10 p.m. on the phone, that's OK."
Weekend College has both changed and stayed constant in the nearly 30 years since Sister Alberta Huber, then St. Catherine's president, set the wheels in motion for St. Kate's to offer weekend degree opportunities. It's hard to know whether Sister Alberta, who passed away in October, envisioned today's WEC community, which encompasses a student population of all ages, both genders, several nationalities, and educational backgrounds ranging from no college credits to multiple degrees. But she likely did envision the outcomes that have continued to this day - providing educational opportunities that meet students' needs. For Kalina and other faculty members, watching students graduate demonstrates the success of their work and the supportive WEC environment. "I was sitting at one of the graduations with a colleague and he said, 'This is what makes this job worth it. To see those smiles on their faces and that pride, that's why we're here,'" says Kalina. "And that's really true."