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Back to school: 57-year-old gets college degree

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Connie Wayne was a first-time college-goer when she entered Central New Mexico Community College at age 55 in 2015. She will get her associate’s degree Saturday at CNM’s commencement ceremony. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Not unlike many college students, Connie Wayne delayed her higher education.

But she didn’t just take a gap year – she waited decades.

“My AARP card came in the mail the same day I got my college (ID) card,” Wayne recalled of enrolling at Central New Mexico Community College as a 55-year-old grandma.

Potential employers showed little interest when Wayne attempted to reenter the workforce a few years ago after stepping away to care for her mom and husband, both of whom had cancer. She surmised that her résumé screamed “old lady” and wanted a fresh start.

“That’s what motivated me,” she said. “I said, ‘I really need to reinvent myself.'”

Today Wayne will pick up her associate’s degree in computer information systems, with an emphasis on digital media, at CNM’s commencement ceremony, one of 1,843 degrees and 2,176 certificates the college is issuing this spring.

Connie Wayne, who graduates from CNM with an AA in Digital Media on Saturday, works as a marketing coordinator for The Southwest Life Real Estate Group. Wayne, 57, and a first-time college student, got the job in January with skills she developed at CNM. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Wayne’s reinvention has already paid off with a full-time job. The Southwest Life Real Estate Group hired her earlier this year to direct its marketing and client care efforts. Her responsibilities include web design, social media coordination and editing videos. Co-owner Deanna Dopslaf said Wayne’s pursuit of a college degree was key to her getting the position since the company’s values include ongoing personal growth.

“If you reach a point in your life you feel like you don’t have anything to learn, that’s not the kind of talent we look for,” Dopslaf said, adding that Wayne has said she wants to keep taking classes for the rest of her life.

Wayne, who grew up in Beverly Hills, Calif., did not go the college route after high school. She had been working since age 11, and was also a dancer who got gigs like backup work for the Osmonds.

The ensuing years brought jobs in retail, banking and real estate, but it all felt irrelevant back in 2015. That’s when Wayne first set foot on CNM’s West Side campus and started asking questions about how to begin anew.

“In all honesty, I wasn’t even sure what I was doing, but I knew that I just had to start, and if I (went) right foot, left foot, once I got further and further into it, I would understand my path a little clearer,” she said.

Wayne, now 57, is not alone – nationally, 38 percent of all U.S. undergraduate students are over 25, according to the Lumina Foundation. At CNM, many are way above 25. The college had more than 1,064 students 50 and up during fall 2017, about 4.4 percent of the population.

Older students are “definitely a population we serve on a regular basis,” said Lidia Muniz, CNM’s associate director for Connect Services, which includes academic coaching. Sometimes they struggle with the technological aspects of CNM’s systems and processes, but Muniz said the college makes help available. Many older students tend to ultimately excel, she said.

“Especially if they’re re-careering, they have a designated goal and they’re determined students,” she said.

Wayne completed many of her early courses online, but took most of her more recent classes on the main campus to access the necessary computer labs. Her age was sometimes conspicuous in what she called a “situational comedy” kind of way, recalling classroom conversations about what students wanted to be when they grew up. But she said maturity actually made her more confident in speaking her mind or asking questions of instructors, many of whom are younger than she is. It also made her particularly appreciative of learning. In fact, she will continue at CNM as she progresses toward a psychology degree. A longtime yogi who teaches at a local studio and also posts online instructional yoga videos, she aims to ultimately to have a yoga therapy practice.

“College has kind of been amazing,” she said. “I like to stay it’s tied every step of my life together in a nice little box.”

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