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Reality hits early for some at SMC

Lisa Gallagher | Tuesday, September 13, 2005

It’s 6 a.m., and most of Saint Mary’s first-year student Kimberly Fugate’s classmates are still sound asleep in their dorm rooms. But Fugate is wide awake, squeezing in a morning workout and getting herself and her two children ready for school.

At 29, Fugate is one of a handful of women on campus who does not fit into the traditional student body demographic of 18 to 22-year-olds. The elementary education student who plans to graduate in 2008 faces multiple challenges – raising a family and completing her courses, all while trying to make ends meet.

“My lifestyle is very different from those on campus,” Fugate said. “I seem to have not very much time to form new friendships. I try to use all my time to study, eat, or pick up the kids from school.”

Eight such students attend Saint Mary’s, and contribute to the unique atmosphere of the College, Saint Mary’s registrar Lorraine Kitchner said.

Fugate, along with Angela Sturm, Marie-Rose Semuhungu and Sister Stella Maris Kunihira, are among the select group of women considered “non-traditional” college students. These women live off-campus and have full-time jobs – Kunihira is a member of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. Some are married, and some have children. Most have some level of higher education under their belts.

Attractive reputation

Sturm had already attended Grand Rapids Junior College for psychology and was in her second semester as a dance major at Grand Valley State University, both in Michigan, when she was offered a “great” job at Arthur Murray’s dance studio in Grand Rapids.

Years later, she established her own studio in South Bend. But despite work and the responsibility of raising eight children on her own, she never gave up on earning a college degree.

“I have decided to fulfill my degree so that I would have a salary and would not have to constantly market and network, and my children and I would have more stability,” Sturm said.

The first-year English major said she wanted to attend Saint Mary’s since she was a teenager when she saw a promotional tape.

Sturm also cited Saint Mary’s proximity as a benefit. Her youngest child, Michael, is in third grade. The oldest child is attending the Indiana Institute of Technology in Fort Wayne.

“Since most of my children are older, they take turns watching the little ones,” she said.

Neither Sturm nor Fugate said professors treated them any differently than other students. Fugate even said her life experiences give her a slight advantage.

“The professors have been awesome, and they draw off my experiences to give real world examples,” Fugate said.

Financial struggles

The rising cost of education makes it increasingly challenging to fund college. Add to that providing for one’s family, and it becomes difficult to find the light at the end of the tunnel that is graduation and, hopefully, a nice salary.

“I work a few nights a week at LaSalle Grill in downtown South Bend as a server,” Fugate said. “They are very accommodating to my schedule and are very supportive of my aspirations.”

Fugate said she receives Pell grants, state grants, and the Dean’s Scholarship. The leftover cost of tuition is covered by loans. She is enrolled as a full-time student, with 12 credit hours.

“I would rather take my time and finish with a good education and grades than rush [through] and ignore all my other responsibilities,” she said.

A generation of difference

Third-year student Kunihira, who declined to give her age, joined the Saint Mary’s community from Uganda. She attended Teacher Training College in her home country, but she said she considered it “school practice.”

As a young woman, Kunihira dedicated herself primarily to serving others and chose to put her education on the back burner. But obtaining a B.A. is one of the requirements to be a school principal in Uganda, so Kunihira decided to return to school.

She noted several differences between the education systems in the U.S. and Uganda.

“In my country, everybody is free to attend to school at any time regardless of age, which is different here,” she said. “Besides, most colleges at home are for teacher training, different from the term used here in the U.S.”

Second-year student Semuhungu first came to Saint Mary’s as a result of the war in her home country, Rwanda, not as a student but as an employee. The 36-year-old worked full-time for the Sisters of the Holy Cross, earning money to send to her family back home. She then attended Holy Cross College to improve her English.

A nursing student, Semuhungu said she was attracted to Saint Mary’s before she knew anything about it. She said having a full course load in addition to raising two children is no easy task.

“I am still up at 9 p.m. cooking dinner and will be up all night studying for an exam,” Sem-unghu said.

Kunihira said she finds little difference between “traditional” and “non-traditional” students at Saint Mary’s.

The only distinction Kunihira drew between Saint Mary’s and Uganda colleges is that Saint Mary’s admits students who have come straight from high school, an unusual practice in Uganda.

“It might be an embarrassing situation for older people to study with young people, but not for me,” Kunihira said. “I’m used to this kind of life because at one time I was studying with those who were older than me.”

Kunihira, a sociology major, plans to teach when she returns to Uganda. She said she would like to establish a vocational school for young men and women in different courses, allowing them to gain different skills used to earn a living.

The bottom line

Whether fresh out of high school or returning to college with a little more real-world experience, students at Saint Mary’s College are there for the same reasons – to gain valuable knowledge, earn a degree and embrace college life.

Despite her age and commitment to her religious order, Kunihira tries to take advantage of opportunities made available to traditional students.

“The interesting event that I will never forget is the Catalyst trip I took to the South last fall with SMC students, the staff members and some women from Michiana,” Kunihira said, referring to an annual Fall Break trip sponsored by the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership.

“Everybody who participated in this event … were younger and older, educated and not highly educated,” Kunihira said. “The focus was on social issues that would transform our way of thinking about other people.”

The unique challenge of being a mother, breadwinner and student is well worth the final result, Fugate said.

“So cheers to college life, no sleep, and living off pure adrenaline,” Fugate said. “It will all pay off in the end, and I will have a great education and an example to set for my children.”