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Columnist J.M. Sorrell: 50 years and counting: University Without Walls

  • UMass University Without Walls recently turned 50 years old.


Thursday, November 11, 2021

Fifty years ago this month, UMass Amherst University Without Walls (UWW) announced that with funding from the U.S. Office of Education, it was one of 19 colleges and universities across the nation to launch its program to support non-traditional students to complete their undergraduate studies.

In 1971, the concept of helping older students return to college was nothing short of radical. The original UWW model has evolved into an academic department and large university major — Interdisciplinary Studies. It is recognized as one of the oldest and most well-regarded adult bachelor’s degree completion programs in the United States.

With much of its curricula available online, many students are from the commonwealth as well as from other parts of the country and world. I dare say the online format served well as a delivery model when the pandemic struck. I should know. I graduated on May 14, 2021 at age 60 — summa cum laude. I am still catching my breath.

UWW accepts previous college credits and also supports students to write a prior learning portfolio to count toward a portion of credits. I learned that I had work and life experience that had value, and we students are mentored to write the portfolio in academic form. It is a confidence-booster for those of us who have shame or feelings of uncompleted business. While I had not squandered my life, I carried a heavy burden for many years.

In my earlier college days, my parents cut me off financially when I came out as a lesbian. I was at the University of Kentucky. Later, I audited courses at Smith College when I worked at its Neilson Library. While the initial setback was beyond my control, I have been hard on myself because I feel I had subsequent junctures where I could have chosen to complete my degree.

My work life became habitual, and I now realize that when I assisted others in their academic endeavors, it was my way of participating somehow. I had a partner in law school whom I helped with her studies and later my significant other whom I was so proud of when she completed her master’s degree. I was faithfully on board to proof-read or offer suggestions as well as to give sincere moral support.

I have always been a confident person but for a very long time that did not equate to large reserves of self-esteem. I am the first in my immediate adoptive family to graduate from college. I am “coming out” here to explain how UWW made all the difference.

My story is one of many that incoming UWW students bring with them. The department’s faculty and staff are remarkable human beings. They are committed to seeing that a motley crew of students make their way through graduation. I was not judged or questioned for my needs, and despite being fairly capable intellectually, those staff people intuitively knew that I was somewhat lost in other ways. Academic rigor was expected alongside the UWW team at the ready for any challenges.

What began as an imperative to complete my degree developed into a calling to graduate school. I want to research, write and teach non-traditional students. A dear friend — a retired sociology professor — recently told me that I have always been an applied sociologist. It may seem out of order, but it is time to take what I know or have done to a level that will broaden and deepen my contribution.

At UWW, a student can opt to attend as a part- or full- time student. Most of us work full time and have established home and family lives. I offer my eternal gratitude to Jacqueline Castledine and Chelsea Warren who mentored and guided me without fail throughout my three years at the school. A special nod to Melanie DeSilva, too, who nominated me for three awards. She was tenacious, and the third one came to fruition. Visit umass.edu/uww/about-university-without-walls to learn more about this innovative and ever-evolving program.

What else happened in 1971? My hometown team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, won the World Series. I worshipped Roberto Clemente (MVP) and I also liked Willie Stargell who played all of his 21 seasons with the Pirates! National Public Radio (NPR) began to broadcast. I lived in Grand Blanc, Michigan, where I had yet to understand the numerous societal injustices that I would feel compelled to address. Music? Sly and the Family Stone, Carole King, Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Chicago and The Who all managed to rule simultaneously.

A good year to start, UWW. Happy anniversary from this loyal new alumna!

J.M. Sorrell is a social justice activist/trainer and a health care advocate.