By Riley Brouwer
Jerilyn Christensen made the incredible journey from college student to teacher of students, all through Rutgers Statewide, a program that brings Rutgers courses, faculty and, ultimately, degrees to students at partnering community colleges.
In 2000, Christensen jumped into her education after high school at Rutgers New Brunswick at the age of eighteen years old. After two years, the then art major discovered that a straight shot into the intense college life was not in her best interest.
Following two semesters at a community college, she took a twelve-year gap before returning to her education. In 2015, she attended Rutgers Atlantic Cape Community College. There Christensen was able to build her confidence in returning to her education while managing to work and being a single mother.
Christensen graduated from Rutgers University with her bachelor's in Psychology in 2018 and is now a 39-year-old graduate student with the Rutgers Camden psychology department. She is completing her master's in psychology with a focus on memory and learning.
Teaching in her former classroom
While completing her master's, she is also teaching in the same building where she once took courses.
Rutgers Atlantic Cape Community College is located in Mays Landing, New Jersey. Students who completed their associate’s degree through community college are able to transfer to different Rutgers Statewide programs such as Atlantic Cape. Offered through Rutgers Division of Continuing Studies, the program is a lifeline for people held back by economics, geography, or simple logistics.
Christensen describes how the study of psychology opened herself up as a person as a whole not just as a learner and educator. Her focus for her master's degree is memory and learning.
"Psychology allows me to get a better understanding of people around me,” she says. “Naturally, I am more reserved, quiet, keep to myself. But it opened me up more and I can understand where people are coming from and why they are, who they are."
Christensen explains that the involvement within the Rutgers Camden Psychology department helped her realize this is what she wanted to do with her life.
"While the time was ticking with getting older, it helped me realize that I'm in the place where I needed today. I like the process of research, and at Rutgers, I am able to do my research. I like to read a lot like scientific articles and conducts experiments and find out what happens."
The Rutgers Camden Psychology Department welcomes students from a variety of different backgrounds and encourages students to complete their education at their own pace. There are many offerings of night courses for those who are part-time students with other obligations.
"I think one of our strengths as a department is that we've always had what we call non-traditional students," says Bill Whitlow, a professor, and chair of psychology for Rutgers University Camden.
"Our program has many different types of people from different ages, different backgrounds, diverse ideas, and experiences. They truly enrich the classroom. There are also students who had children or other life opportunities. We are characterized as a good campus for those who want to finish their education," said Whitlow.
Christensen explained that the availability in having evening classes was beneficial for her education because she is able to manage her schedule and other life obligations.
"There is no one demanding that you have to be a full-time student. Giving yourself that extra time where you can focus on your classes and focus on completing your work reduces so much stress, and you're more likely to be happy doing what you're doing in school and everything else in life."
When Christensen returned to Rutgers, she made sure to make connections within the psychology department. There she met Whitlow.
"Jerilyn was a student of mine as an undergraduate. She is very organized and hardworking. She's worked with me as a research assistant and data collection for her thesis. She's focused and is a delight to work with."
Christensen has been a research assistant for Whitlow and has produced a few psychology publications while working together. Christensen shares that Whitlow knew that she wanted to teach and introduced the opportunity to teach at Atlantic Cape.
Adult Student Learning
Now as a teacher, Christensen shares a great deal of empathy towards her students because she is also a student herself and she can relate with them. Not all college students are teenagers right out of high school, most are just like Christensen when she returned.
"I feel for my students, I know they're all adults, I know they have children, I know they have jobs,” she says. "I'm trying to bring the best of them because I think they deserve every opportunity that everyone else is able to receive elsewhere."
Not all adults or former students think that they can earn their level of higher education. From many life obligations to a changing schedule. Rutgers Statewide makes it possible for a countless number of students like Christensen to achieve it.
"Returning as an adult student and coming back to your education, it's something you want to do. It's not something you feel obligated to do."