Perseverance Required

Adult Student Conquers Unique Challenges

By Jessica Turner ’17
5/31/2019 5:00:00 AM

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From late-night study sessions and early-morning classes to extracurricular activities and work-study assignments, the traditional college student has multiple priorities to balance. There’s no question that getting a college education requires a great deal of perseverance and discipline. 

But for the nontraditional student, earning a degree takes an inspiring level of resilience. Most nontraditional students work full-time jobs and many have families, so they take classes at night or online, squeezing in homework whenever and wherever they can. Nontraditional students are often expected to be present as a spouse, a parent, a caretaker, an employee and a volunteer. Still, they persevere.

If anyone knows the challenges nontraditional students face, it’s Twyla Rownak ’11 and ’15. Rownak is a therapist with Single Parent Scholarship Fund of Benton County (SPSFBC), an organization that offers holistic assistance to single parents completing a college degree or credential that will bring them and their children out of poverty. Without assistance from SPSFBC for expenses like rent, childcare, transportation and tuition, most of these parents would not be able to further their education. Rownak works with these nontraditional students to provide free counseling services to the scholarship recipients and their children. 

But Rownak’s understanding of what it’s like to balance family, work and school goes beyond her work as a therapist at SPSFBC — Rownak herself was a JBU nontraditional student and a recipient of the SPSFBC program. At the age of 30, Rownak found herself widowed with four children, ages 2 to 9, when strangers shot and killed her husband on his way home from work. In the midst of grieving and caring for her children, Rownak realized she needed to further her education in order to support her family.

Deeply impacted by the counseling she and her family received after losing a husband and father, Rownak decided to pursue a career that allowed her to help families in the same way. 

“Therapy greatly benefitted the older three children and helped me better understand their grief,” said Rownak. “Grief and healing for my family and other families — as well as needing to support my family — motivated me to pursue a degree in counseling.”

SPSFBC connected Rownak with JBU’s degree completion program, which allowed her to finish her bachelor’s degree in organizational management in 2011. 

“Many things demanded my attention,” said Rownak. “I continued to homeschool my children for several years while attending college. There were also several normal challenges like mothering, meeting living expenses, getting financial aid, commuting to campus... trying to remember old terms and how to study.”

Despite these challenges, Rownak graduated and then earned her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from JBU in 2015. But Rownak says her time at JBU influenced more than her career; it impacted her spiritually. 

“I am continually grateful for my time at JBU and feel transformed by the experience,” said Rownak. “My spiritual journey at JBU led me to wrestle with my feelings of betrayal and anger toward God, who ‘allowed’ my husband to die. When I shared some of my struggles with a couple of professors, none of them gave me easy answers like ‘it all happens for a reason’ or any other fluffy, ‘cotton-candy’ spirituality. Instead, they heard, validated and empowered me to wrestle with my faith and with God. I went from blind belief to agnostic disbelief to a more confident faith in the God of the Bible who knows my innermost thoughts and still redeemed and continually transforms me.” 

Rownak is just one of the over 200 nontraditional students JBU has been able to guide through the demands of finishing degree programs with a format that caters to their busy lives. 

Dean of the Graduate School Dr. Richard Ellis has had the opportunity to witness how JBU has served nontraditional students for decades. He championed the creation of the Advance program, later renamed the adult degree completion program and now transformed into JBU Online. 

“In 1993, you had to either quit your job or you had to attend class one night per week for several years until you earned your bachelor’s degree,” said Ellis. “As a degree became more necessary for career advancement, JBU wanted to create a way for working adults to get a quality education, so we developed the Advance program.” 

The first Advance class was offered at a Holiday Inn in Springdale, Arkansas, in 1993. The program evolved from there, eventually expanding to several locations in Arkansas, including Little Rock, Fort Smith and Rogers. In 1995, JBU began offering graduate programs, initially in counseling, in a format that made it available to working adult students as well. 

This year marks a significant milestone not only because JBU is celebrating 100 years as an institution, but because JBU’s nontraditional student programs are celebrating their 25th anniversary.

Today, the online and graduate school programs continue to create opportunities for nontraditional students. Students with prior college credit can now complete a degree exclusively online, and most of JBU’s graduate programs can be completed online, allowing for more flexibility. Although JBU will continue to evolve—serving students through new technology, expanded degree offerings and flexible course formats—Ellis says there is one thing that will never change. 

“John Brown University is a school that is broadly Christian,” Ellis said. “We care about our students. We address the Head, Heart and Hand of the individual. We embrace the concept of ‘Christ Over All,’ and that will always continue.”

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