In her early 20s, Cristin Wittwer was attending community college while working in the restaurant industry. She never thought that career path would lead her to MTSU and back to school, but she is set to finish up her bachelor’s degree this May.
Wittwer said she stopped going to school because she was quickly elevated to a management role and was making more money than her friends. She loved her job and she’s stayed in the industry because of it. Now, at 36, she is in her fifth year of working for Waffle House in their human resources department as a recruiting director. She was offered a promotion, but she would need a bachelor’s degree to fill that position, she said.
“They were willing to promote me as long as I was enrolled in school and working toward that degree,” said Wittwer, a Murfreesboro resident. “It was always a dream I had — to go back — but I think the fear of going back held me back.”
Wittwer said going back to college in her 30s was different than she had imagined. Before enrolling, she wondered how she could manage a traditional college experience — all-day classes, studying in the library, and so on. As she soon discovered, MTSU’s flexible degree options allowed her to pursue a nontraditional path.
“I found out you can actually go back as an adult and fit it all in while being a parent and a spouse and an employee,” said Wittwer, a recent Murfreesboro Young Professionals board member. “I feel like these courses have helped my career tremendously and helped me grow. Especially during these crazy times like right now, it’s very nice to have a backup. You never know what could happen.”
Wittwer said she chose MTSU after working with the Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center through Waffle House. She had met retired Lt. Gen. Keith Huber, MTSU’s senior adviser for veterans and leadership initiatives, on occasion and heard him speak, and found him to be inspirational. Once she learned he was a faculty member in the Applied Leadership program, she got the ball rolling and decided MTSU was the place for her.
After enrolling in the Applied Leadership Program, a concentration within the Integrated Studies degree, Wittwer was encouraged to take the Prior Learning Assessment course. With PLA, adult students are able to convert their prior work and training and certifications into college credit and use up to 60 credits toward electives. Students do all of this for the cost and time of a three-hour course, rather than the cost of their credits earned. Wittwer earned 18 credits, plus the three credits for the course for a total of 21 hours of course credit.
“When I first signed up for it I was intimidated,” she said. “I heard about this portfolio I had to put together, and I was nervous about really dissecting my resume and my own experience.”
Throughout the course, Wittwer went from doubting her experience would translate to much college credit to completing a “giant” portfolio that she was proud of that included documenting her 10 years of experience at Waffle House.
“I didn’t expect to feel validated at the end of it,” said Wittwer. “I am really proud of it because it’s a way to reflect on what you’ve accomplished.”
Many nontraditional students are apprehensive about stepping back into the classroom and wondering if they’ll feel out of place, but Wittwer says it was “a lot of fun” being in a classroom with working adults who have so much experience in several different industries.
“Being in the classroom with other people who are also adults and already have a career and are successful is so great,” she said. “We find ourselves cheering each other on and forming real bonds with one another.”
Wittwer said she is so glad she found MTSU and the Applied Leadership Program because not only did she earn a degree, but she also became a more effective employee.
“This is a lifelong goal I am fulfilling, but I am a better person and a better leader because of these courses and the Applied Leadership Program.”
— Hunter Patterson (Hunter.Patterson@mtsu.edu)