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Winter 2006

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Prerequisite

The Walls Came Tumbling Down
University Without Walls turns 35

—Faye Wolfe

Gary Bernhard
Gary Bernhard, director of University Without Walls since 1988. Since opening its doors 35 years ago, University Without Walls has given nontraditional learners a place to succeed at UMass Amherst.
IN 1971, WHEN THE UNIVERSITY without walls (UWW) set up shop in Wysocki, some 500 inquiries a day from people eager to attend poured into the little white farmhouse at the north edge of campus. Three thousand alumni later, UWW, born of a social movement to reinvent higher education, is still going strong.

“That movement was founded on principles,” says UWW director Gary Bernhard, “a belief in the value of individual degree design, of interdisciplinary studies, and in the recognition of nontraditional experiential learning…the idea that we’re ‘all learners together.’ All that wonderful, idealistic stuff of the sixties.”

Now in Montague House, another former farmhouse, UWW is not just a sixties survivor, but an innovator. Its Weekends@UWW program in Springfield was one of the first UMass Amherst online programs. In the works is a degree program for European corporate managers. Equally forward-thinking are its degree programs in early childcare and education; teacher licensure; and human services. They enable people working in vital but often underpaid areas like childcare and direct care to become better at what they do, earn degrees, and advance their careers.

That “wonderful and idealistic stuff” still distinguishes UWW. It awards academic credit for nontraditional learning—for working, for instance, as a political organizer. UWW students craft individual courses of study merging interests and experience with the many offerings available on campus, online, and through programs at Springfield Technical Community College and MassMutual. And UWW still fosters a sense of “we’re all learners together.”
From the start, UWW strove, says Bernhard, “to bring the university to the people,” to the poor and minorities in particular. The 1972-1973 annual report noted that that year’s class had “a preponderance of women” (60 percent) and “strong representation of minorities” (35 percent) in “a domain usually reserved for young white males.” Students included a “former nursery school teacher,” a “ninth-grade dropout,” a “housewife with seven children,” and a recovering drug addict running a rehab center. For a time, UWW held classes for prisoners.

Ranging in age from 25 to 70, UWW students still come from every walk of life. Some found college a struggle in the past. “They’ve had negative experiences,” says Bernhard. “They’re cynical, or desperate—they just want that piece of paper. Once they’re here, they develop a better understanding of the value of education as more than a credential. They see how it strengthens the ability to communicate, to think. UWW very intentionally strives to make that plain to its students.”

“Many are going through big changes in their lives: women getting divorced or whose children have grown up and left home; a guy who has lost his job or been passed over for promotion because he didn’t have a degree. They’re looking to education to give them a lift.”
Others, Bernhard notes, “are independent scholars, people who have been reading and thinking critically for years,” like the “brilliant guy” whose passion was studying social theory. At UWW he wrote a 250-page portfolio; eventually he became a teacher.

Then there are the UWW students who have done very well without degrees. Take Jeff Taylor ’01, the founder of the online careers network Monster.com. (He’s now about to launch another company, Eons, Inc., targeted at the “50- to 100-year-olds marketplace.”) A millionaire several times over by the time he entered UWW, he didn’t really need a degree. But having to explain that he had attended UMass Amherst but hadn’t graduated, he says, “was a hard way to gain credibility.” Unlike other famous dropouts such as Bill Gates, Taylor says, “I was never proud of the fact that I’d dropped out…UWW allowed me to find my path to a degree in a way I could not have done otherwise with three children, running a half-billion-dollar business, with a multitude of responsibilities.”

Mary Clare Higgins ’03 had also done just fine without a degree. After dropping out of Brooklyn College in the 1970s, she moved to Northampton, took classes at community colleges, worked in the field of child care—and became mayor of Northampton in 2000. One week, with her paycheck came a flyer for a UWW presentation. At the session, “I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to finish.’” She adds, “I’ve always had jobs with lots going on. I was never good at being in school fulltime: I like to work, I have a low threshold for being bored. UWW allowed me to stop in and stop out and still keep moving toward that degree.”

Bonnie Shullenberger ’76, now an Episcopal priest, puts it this way: “UWW allowed my anarchic impulses to ramble while still keeping me within some kind of responsible framework.”

That framework comes in part from UWW courses that hone students’ reading, writing, research, and critical skills. They also write a “prior learning portfolio.” In shaping into a narrative such experiences as previous courses, internships, jobs, volunteer and unpaid activities, students often uncover themes threading their pasts—a passion for public service, a bent toward problem-solving—that shape their degree plans and their sense of self.

On average, UWW students maintain 3.5 GPAs, many while working full-time, raising families, or both. Cheryl Alexander ’02 juggled responsibilities as the single parent of an eight-year-old with going to UMass Amherst. She transferred into UWW because, she says, “it seemed more tailored to the needs of nontraditional students like myself. I was attracted by the fact that life experiences were taken into account—honored. UMass can be a bit overwhelming, but UWW gave me a community. It was very rich.” After graduation, she got her master’s from Smith College School of Social Work and is now a social worker/therapist.

Some students log long hours traveling to and from classes. Ray Aubin ’01, drove across the state to UWW at STCC two nights a week, after working all day at his garden center, Attleboro Farms, until he enrolled in UWW’s Weekends Program, in which students take courses online as well as on campus during certain weekends. Although Aubin says, “many of my classmates had so much more to deal with,” his story is a moving one. “I was in Stockbridge in 1971…at age 19 I lost both my parents. I had younger siblings, so I had to leave school and go to work.” After putting his siblings through college, going into business, marrying, and raising his own children, he enrolled in UWW and got his degree. Now he’s getting a master’s. This is typical, too: Nearly 50 percent of UWWers go on to graduate school. Their drive to learn doesn’t decline after graduation. As one recent grad put it: “I’m finding it hard to read a novel without a highlighter in my hand.”

Again and again, UWW alums say their advisors’ support was invaluable. “The advisors can’t help getting closely connected to their students, who may be going through powerful and painful things,” Bernhard says. “Unfortunately, those are the things that we learn from the most, not the happy ones.”

Unless, that is, it’s the happy experience of going through UWW and emerging with a degree.

To learn more about UWW visit: www.umass.edu/uww/


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