From MTSU Board Chair Stephen Smith to state lawmakers to working mothers, graduates of MTSU’s best-in-state Adult Degree Completion Program prove it’s never too late to come back to college
By Allison Gorman
Everyone loves a good comeback story.
Stephen Smith has two of them.
The first one happened in 1977, a year after Smith’s pickup hit a feed truck that spun out in front of him on a rain-slickened road in Nashville. The impact left him pinned inside his steaming vehicle, a bone poking through the skin of his right wrist. It took him a while to realize that his hip was broken too.
The good news, besides the fact that he was alive, was that his pitching arm was unscathed. MTSU’s baseball team had just clinched the 1976 Ohio Valley Conference championship, and Smith—a walk-on who was, in his words, “an average player with way-above-average dedication”—was looking forward to one more year of eligibility.
His road back to pitching was rough. Smith spent two months in traction, dropped 50 pounds, and returned to school in a wheelchair. When he was back on his feet, Smith couldn’t run with the team. His coach, the late John Stanford, gave him a key to Murphy Center to use the whirlpool. That’s where the night security guard would find Smith when he was too miser-able to sleep.
For Smith, baseball inspired a sense of purpose that school never had. Determined to play again, he logged 500 miles between September and March, going at “a slow waddle.”
His diligence paid off at the end of the season. With Smith on the mound, MTSU beat Murray State to grab the 1977 division championship. After his hard-fought comeback, the win felt like both the pinnacle and the natural conclusion of his college career.
“It was one of those fairy tales that works out,” he said. “Not all of them do.”
With his eligibility finished and a career at his dad’s construction company lined up, Smith dropped out of school—but he stayed True Blue.
Over the next three decades, as his star rose in local business, civic, and political circles, Smith held various leadership positions at MTSU. And following in the footsteps of his late father, Reese Smith Jr., for whom the baseball field is named, he donated and raised money to improve Blue Raider athletics.
He also pushed to improve the lives of the MTSU student-athletes themselves. In 2005, as chair of the search committee that hired Chris Massaro, Smith told the new Blue Raiders athletic director that boosting players’ graduation rate was his most important mission. (Massaro delivered. By 2017, the rate had reached a school-record 88%.)
Yet Smith knew his own story didn’t support his message. So he enrolled in MTSU’s Adult Degree Completion Program, or ADCP, to finish what he’d started more than 30 years earlier. It was his second great comeback.
Setting an example
Smith had some personal reasons for finishing his degree.
Whenever he applied for a position on a committee or board—and he served on many, for prominent organizations such as the Metropolitan Nashville Planning Commission, Middle Tennessee Regional Transit Authority, and Metropolitan Nashville Parks and Recreation—he’d worry about inadvertently misrepresenting himself as a graduate (rather than an alumnus) of MTSU.
He enrolled in MTSU’s Adult Degree Completion Program, or ADCP, to finish what he’d started more than 30 years earlier. It was his second great comeback.
He knew a degree would give him more credibility in national political circles as he helped plan a potential U.S. presidential bid by former Senate Minority Leader Bill Frist. “If you’re from the South, they look at you like they’re surprised if you wear socks,” Smith said.
Also on his radar was then-Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to create separate governing boards for MTSU and other four-year schools under the auspices of the Tennessee Board of Regents.
“I hoped to earn the respect of the governor enough to be appointed to the Board of Trust,” Smith said. “I thought it would be a lot easier if I was a graduate than if I was a dropout.”
But his primary motivation was to set an example for MTSU’s student-athletes.
Like many of them, he’d dreamed of going pro, even though the odds of making it to the next level were infinitesimal. He’d dropped out knowing he had another dream job lined up: a position working for his idol, his father, at Haury & Smith Contractors. But for most college athletes, their degree is their future.
“The only place my face was recognizable at school was at the athletic department, and we had hundreds of young people there,” Smith said. “My thought was that they would say, ‘If getting a degree is important to Mr. Smith, and he’s nearly 60—to them I was an old man—maybe I’d better get mine.’”
Never too late
Smith has set an example for adults too. He’s proof that it’s never too late to make a comeback at MTSU. The Adult Degree Completion Program applies the seasoned student’s knowledge and skills to degree requirements, making getting a bachelor’s degree as time- and cost-efficient as possible.
Fewer than half of MTSU students are between 18 and 21, so accommodating adult students is part of the University’s mission. The ADCP offers a flexible path to a bachelor’s degree for people who are entering college later in life. Maybe they joined the military directly out of high school, or they earned an associate’s degree and want to go further. Or maybe, like Smith, they dropped out of college and regret it.
Through the ADCP, they can work toward any bachelor’s degree MTSU offers, although most people major in Professional Studies or Integrated Studies—general Bachelor of Science programs designed to make the most of prior college credits or work experience. Course credit for previous work and military learning experiences is awarded through a semester-long class called Prior Learning Assessment (PLA).
It’s not unusual to finish a degree in a year through the ADCP, although completion time varies depending on several factors, including the specific degree, prior college and PLA credits, and course load. Students are encouraged to work at the best pace for them, choosing from online, traditional, and accelerated classes to fit college into their busy schedules.
In the decade since the ADCP launched at MTSU, word has gotten out about its value. Now at any given time, there are 1,000 to 1,200 adults enrolled in the program, making a comeback.
Shenika Martindale, of Antioch, enrolled in the ADCP 27 years after a knee injury forced her to drop out of Roane State Community College, where she was a scholarship athlete. She found a manufacturing job at Nissan and stayed there into her 40s, when she decided she didn’t want to work in a factory forever. She became an educational assistant with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, finished her associate’s degree at Nashville State Community College, and immediately wanted more: more education, more opportunities to help inner-city kids.
After exploring the options, Martindale was convinced that MTSU offers the best adult degree completion program around. She entered the program in June 2018 needing 51 credit hours, and between accelerated courses and her PLA credits, Martindale earned a bachelor’s in Integrated Studies in less than a year, graduating this May.
“I told myself initially that I wanted my bachelor’s degree by the time I turned 50,” she said. “Well, I just turned 48. Now I want my master’s degree before I turn 50.”
She’s not even there yet, but “I’m finally living my dream,” Martindale said. And she knows where she’ll go for her master’s in Professional Counseling. “I’m now an alum at MTSU. Why wouldn’t I want to give my money to my University?”
Martindale was convinced that MTSU offers the best adult degree completion program around.
Tammie Patterson, of Wartrace, said it was her daughter’s impending high school graduation that nudged her back to college. Patterson labored through years of night school in the ’90s to earn her associate’s degree in business. Then her kids were born, and the demands of work and parenthood pushed her educational goals to the back burner.
Last year, with a son at Tennessee Tech and a daughter headed for college, Patterson realized she’d been so busy urging them forward that she hadn’t furthered herself. She enrolled in the ADCP, majoring in Liberal Studies (now consolidated with Integrated Studies), and graduated this May with a 4.0.
A bachelor’s degree is good employment insurance, Patterson said, although she enjoys her career with human resources company Hamilton-Ryker.
“I wanted to be able to move up in my company, and while my experience covers anything that a degree would, I didn’t want my not having a degree to ever keep me from improving my position,” she said.
She and Martindale also participated in the Applied Leadership Program, comprising several five-day, 40-hour intensive courses. Both considered the program a highlight — particularly a leadership course taught by retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Keith Huber.
“I can’t even describe how that experience made me feel,” Martindale said.
Representing adult learners
Explaining how he fit college into his busy life, Stephen Smith quotes his father: “You find time for things that you want to do.”
Exhibits A and B can be found in the Tennessee General Assembly: Mike Sparks, from Smyrna, and Jeremy Faison, from Cosby.
For 30 years, Sparks has been squeezing higher learning into a life that doesn’t have room for it. By age 21, he was a husband and father with a factory job and his own business.
Then he started more businesses, trained to be a realtor and an emergency medical technician, wrote the first of three books, became a radio show host, and built a political career. All along the way he was taking college classes, eventually earning an associate’s degree from Motlow State Community College.
Sparks enrolled at MTSU in 2013, got his bachelor’s in two years through the ADCP — and kept right on going.
“What inspired me was Dr. Larry Burriss’ free expression class, about the First Amendment,” he said. “I had to have it. It was my last class. And I really didn’t want to take it.”
As a politician, Sparks is bothered by what he sees as an unfair and counterproductive media focus on negative and divisive stories. This class got him thinking about how he could help change that dynamic. Now he says he is pursuing a master’s degree in Media and Communication at MTSU and—ever the entrepreneur—publishing an online newspaper, TennesseeLedger.com.
Sparks’ colleague in the state legislature, Faison, could point to his five children as his excuse for never returning to college after failing out as a teen. Instead, Faison said his kids, especially his 16-year-old daughter, were his inspiration for enrolling in the ADCP this spring. As she considers her future after high school, he hopes to set a good example for her and her four younger siblings, especially because his first college go-round was a lesson in what not to do.
Faison wants his children to understand that a degree will open doors for them.
“I wasn’t mature enough to handle it,” Faison said. “And since I’ve grown up, I’ve regretted the fact that I don’t have an education. So that’s what I’m doing—bettering myself.”
While his career as a politician and business owner proves that you don’t need a degree to succeed, Faison wants his children to understand that a degree will open doors for them. He hopes it will open doors for him too, if he leaves government or starts a new business.
By taking online classes and some five-day intensive courses, Faison expects to earn his bachelor’s degree in Integrated Studies by December 2020.
“My family’s used to me being gone five days, because I live in east Tennessee and work in Nashville,” he said. “I think we’ll be just fine.”
A sure thing
Stephen Smith had no such confidence when he enrolled in the ADCP. “I had a lot of self-doubts,” he said.
There were logistic issues: He couldn’t type, and he was a stranger to the world of online classes and computerized testing. There were academic issues: His humble grades from the ’70s meant he had to make excellent ones now to bring his GPA up to par.
Smith was so scared he wouldn’t make it through the program that he told almost no one—not even his two sons—that he’d gone back to school.
“I was uncharacteristically modest about what I did until after I accomplished it,” he said.
In fact, he felt far more assured of earning a spot on the future MTSU Board of Trustees than of earning a bachelor’s degree.
Turns out he did both. Smith became the first chair of the board in 2017, 5½ years after receiving the diploma that hangs on his office wall.
Read this story and more: MTSU Magazine Summer 2019