Photo by Tara Wuorinen

Determined adult student shows that a return to school can be fulfilling at any age.

Denise Washington is completing a Rutgers degree through a unique University partnership program with local community colleges. 

On her journey as an adult going back to school to complete both an associate’s and bachelor’s degree, Denise Washington overcame hurdles that would daunt most people. She lost her job, and then her husband. Still, she was determined to finish her education, something her spouse had always encouraged, and the drive to succeed also motivated her to get healthy and lose 100 pounds along the way.

“It’s been a tough journey, but I have enjoyed every step of the way,” says Washington, who studied psychology with a minor in women’s and gender studies, graduating in December 2019.

The path back to school was paved by a unique program, Rutgers Statewide, which helps returning students who have earned an associate’s degree to complete a Rutgers degree by attending classes taught by Rutgers faculty at one of six local community colleges. The program is especially attractive to students like Washington who work and have families to support, and want the convenience of a Rutgers degree earned close to home. Rutgers Statewide is a part of Rutgers University Department of Continuing Education, which consistently allows non-traditional and returning students to complete their degree conveniently. 

Washington initially attended college right out of high school, but soon left to work on Wall Street in brokerage firms while spending her free time traveling. She always vowed to go back, and when she was laid off from her job, it felt like the perfect time to complete a degree. At first, she was nervous about being the older adult in a sea of millennials.

“I didn’t want them to view me as the older person who can’t work a computer. However, that is not what I found at all. The students are great, and just like me they are working while going to school. I enjoy dispelling myths about what older people are supposed to be like,” she says.

She began attending County College of Morris (CCM) when her son was also a student there, obtaining the same degree. They, and her daughter, would all sit around the kitchen table at night doing homework, a sight that made her husband, George, laugh with delight.

It was during this time that Washington reignited her love of exercise and joined a local program that over time would lead to a 100-pound weight loss. She did not realize the ongoing important role that exercise would play in her life.

At the same time, Washington learned that she could stay at CCM and complete her bachelor’s degree as a Rutgers student, while remaining on a familiar campus. The program, offered through Rutgers Division of Continuing Studies, has helped thousands of students earn a Rutgers degree from around the state.

“I always wanted to go to Rutgers, but the commute from my job would have been rough. When I heard about the partnership program, I thought, this is pay dirt. And it has worked out so very well,” she says.

During this time, Washington began a new job while also taking classes. Then, in 2016, the unexpected loss of her husband was a huge heartache and setback, and Washington credits the psychology classes she was taking with helping her to find a good counselor to share her grief. She felt a renewed sense of joy in her education just knowing this was something her husband had always hoped she would complete.

“He knew how much I wanted this. I felt like he was there with me on this journey,” she said.

Outside of work as a divisional trainer for coding and operations, she started her own business teaching students medical coding. Through her weight-loss journey, she also became a health and wellness specialist for women.

“I train women, mostly over 50, to complete half-marathons as walkers, which is a completely different training regimen than for runners,” says Washington, who works out five to six days a week and has completed five marathons herself. She is expected to get her spin instructor certification in 2019 as well.

Looking toward graduation, Washington plans to take some time for herself and to focus on counseling women on wellness as a way of life. And along the way, she has two cheerleaders in her children, who have always supported her. “On bad days when I say I don’t think I can do this, they say, yes you can!” she laughs.

Her advice to those seeking a life change by returning to school is to make sure to earn the degree that interests you, not just complete the path you started 20 years ago.

“Think about who you are now. Find whatever will drive you. If you waited this long, you should do something that is meaningful to you.”

Editor's Note-- May 12, 2020: Two years after her graduation, Washington now works for Genesis Healthcare as an Education and Audit Specialist, a position that allows her to continue to broaden her skills as a medical coder. She not only works as a medical coder, but also teaches medical coding guidelines to students, helping them to become certified through the American Academy of Certified Coders. Teaching is a rewarding career for Washington, who says that "It is so satisfying when I see students suddenly 'get it,' and understand a concept. I work hard to get to that point and work with the student until we can get to that moment."

In 2019, she received the Mid-Atlantic Outstanding Continuing Education Student award from UPCEA. At the award's conference, she made a speech that received a standing ovation. Since then, she presented a longer version of the speech to a crowd of over 100 at the Division of Continuing Studies. She remains a dedicated public speaker and member of Toastmasters. 

Denise continues to develop a passion for fitness and coaching, and is a certified spin instructor, typically teaching five classes per week. She is also working towards becoming a certified Pilates instructor and tacking the Philadelphia half marathon. 

Washington voices gratitude for the Rutgers-CCM partnership, which allowed her to create a minor within the department of Women and Gender Studies. "It is because of the course load which I completed at Rutgers that I can now engage in conversations with friends and not simply parrot misinformation I hear from others," she said. "I am the one who can contribute historical references and economic consequences using evidenced-based studies and articles." Though she at times stood out as one of the oldest students in her classes, she now recommends this program not only to peers but to others whose children are looking to begin their college education.