MIDDLETOWN, Va. - During commencement here at Lord Fairfax Community College this spring, M. Gayle Crowder not only stole the show but, for a memorable moment, stopped it.
While college president John Sygielski was busily handing out diplomas, he learned Crowder had wrapped up work on her associate of arts degree 37 years after finishing high school. Sygielski waved the cap-and-gown parade to a halt and strode across stage to a microphone, where he announced her achievement. Crowder got a standing ovation.
At 55, Crowder is one of the growing ranks of what educators call "nontraditional students": those age 24 or older who did not proceed directly from high school to college or remain there full-time to earn a degree.
Nontraditional students roughly equal traditional students among U.S. undergraduates today, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. They're the majority at many two-year community colleges, Sygielski said, and about 75 percent of Lord Fairfax's enrollment.
"Many students no longer do the four-year-and-out route through college," said Mike Bowler, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Services, in Washington. "It's not unusual now to see people waiting to enter college until they're 30 and 40 years old."
Some served a hitch or more in the military. Others are divorced or widowed, retired or newly employed and seeking more training. Some seek self-enrichment - auditing coursework without piling up credits. Most spend long hours sweating for paychecks.
Colleges are learning some lessons of their own about dealing with nontraditional students, who bring an entirely different culture to campus. Most are more experienced than new high school graduates, and are more likely to challenge things they hear in class. They may require more flexible hours and other services.
It's not unusual for these older students to serve as life mentors for younger peers in exchange for help with study habits, computer use or time management.
Crowder, of Strasburg, was holding a secretarial job when she started at Lord Fairfax, and also was caring for her elderly father. She took early retirement after working 32 years for the Social Security Administration, and initially took only one or two courses at a time. She often attended night classes. But she showed up.
"It isn't the people who are the smartest who get through this," said Crowder, who took seven years to earn her degree, normally a two-year process. "I know because I'm not an 'A' student. It's the people who want it the most."
Take Lynda Miller, 36, another in Lord Fairfax's Class of 2005. Miller, of Front Royal, returned to become a registered nurse a decade after getting an associate degree in office systems technology. Her husband, Ray, is a National Guardsman who was called to active duty and ordered to Afghanistan. That cut the family income in half, but Miller, a mother of three, said she was able to stay in school thanks to people from the community who rallied behind her.
Then there are the mid-career folks who awaken one morning without jobs. Yvonne Comeau of Mount Jackson worked at the Wrangler Jeans Co. when it closed its plant in Woodstock in December 2002, resulting in the loss of some 200 jobs.
"I had just turned 50 when they announced they were shutting down," Comeau said. "I was a 'crotch joiner' at the time. Imagine putting that on a resume."
She was terrified at the thought of returning to school but knew she would be able to squeeze by financially with the help of a federal grant. She quickly got her high school GED certificate and began working on an associate degree at Lord Fairfax.
"I had sat in a factory 25 years being told I wasn't smart enough to do anything but work a sewing machine," Comeau said. "Nobody wanted to hear my ideas or thoughts. When I went back to college, I learned you're expected to speak up in class and express an opinion. It absolutely blew me away. All of a sudden I realized I've got more than just a pair of hands."
Comeau, named Outstanding Graduate of the Middletown campus, intends eventually to earn a bachelor's degree.
Older students often need additional preparation before they begin school again, or special help once they arrive on campus.
For colleges, that might include teaching remedial skills, or providing such services as child and adult daycare, 24-hour computer labs and adviser access, telecommuting, English as a second language, weekend classes or housing.
"We're in need of space and faculty but we're trying to move into the communities to get it," said Sygielski of Lord Fairfax, which draws students from seven Virginia counties around the Shenandoah Valley, about 80 miles west of Washington. "I don't think this (campus) needs to be the epicenter. I think we need to be in the communities where we can provide the GEDs and a career ladder."
The nation's approximately 1,200 community colleges are not simply "job factories," he said.
"We actually have three functions that we're into. There's a growing responsibility for us to offer academic transfer programs. That's to ensure that anyone who wants to can transfer smoothly into a four-year institution. Another 25 to 30 percent of the effort here is job enhancement. The rest is channeled into personal enrichment."
Crowder, meantime, is taking several more classes this summer.
"I don't know yet about a four-year degree," she said, "But I do know I'm happiest when I'm at school."