LEWISBURG, Pa. – College was the last thing on Kevin Schneck's mind when he graduated from high school 13 years ago. He enrolled at a local university but soon decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps instead.
"School was not that big a deal to me after high school," Schneck, now 31, recalled. "I was at a point in my life when I was still trying to figure out who I was."
After eight years of military service in the Mediterranean, Panama, California and Iraq and getting married, Schneck enrolled at Harrisburg Area Community College, this time determined to get a degree. Toward the end of his second year at HACC, he found out about the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which partners with Bucknell University and seven other four-year institutions to offer scholarships to community college transfer students.
Scheck, an international relations major with a focus in Asia, is one of 11 Bucknell Community College Scholars graduating May 17. The group, which includes students from five community colleges in Maryland and Pennsylvania, is the first class to complete the program since it began at Bucknell in 2007.
Many different paths Each of the 42 community college scholars followed an unusual path to Bucknell. Several moved to the United States from Eastern Europe for education and work opportunities. Others came from the suburbs of Philadelphia and rural Pennsylvania.
The Cooke Foundation has given Bucknell about $800,000 during the past four years to start up and support the program. Bucknell, in turn, has committed nearly $2 million in tuition scholarships, said Mark Davies, assistant vice president for enrollment management.
As much as the community college scholars take from their experiences at Bucknell, they have given back to the campus, Davies said.
"We got into this program with the intent and curiosity of knowing there are some great students out there who were not on our radar screen," he said. "Students discover community college either for financial reasons or later in life as they discover a possibility for learning. It adds in so many different ways I don't think we anticipated. This group is older, more mature, more focused and brings life experiences with them."
Diverse backgrounds Bucknell in the past has not targeted transfer students, largely because the university has a high retention rate, Davies said. The community college scholars program offered an opportunity to diversify the student body. The students tend to have a strong sense of purpose, determination and appreciation for their education, Davies said.
They also have different needs. Schneck and fellow community college scholar Nicola Manning, who came to Bucknell from Montgomery County Community College, are parents who have had to balance class work with childcare. Others, such as accounting major Elena Mihaylova, needed career help.
Mihaylova, 29, moved to the United States five years ago from Bulgaria. She worked as a night auditor at a hotel in Hershey before enrolling at HACC. Transferring to Bucknell as an accounting major was an adjustment, but the support network helped quicken the transition, she said.
"Because of the small classes, you get to know people through work projects," she said. "The management school is not so big, so you get to know the professors really well. I don't know what I would have done at a big school."
During her first semester, Mihaylova's professors encouraged her to seek a summer internship and to work at the Career Development Center to learn how to interview and draft a resume. The internship led to a job as an auditor after graduation with Deloitte & Touche in Princeton, N.J.
Varied experiences Krista Joosep, an international relations major from Estonia, transferred from Garrett College in Maryland. During her time at Bucknell, Joosep placed in an intercollegiate pistol shooting competition in Georgia, sang in the concert chorale and spent a semester at sea, traveling around the world on a ship, learning about and visiting more than a dozen countries.
"I'm getting a world-class education, and I couldn't be happier about it," she said. "I have had amazing professors, amazing resources. Everything's possible. If I wanted to do something here, I could talk to someone and make it happen."
Joosep has been admitted to the Graduate Institute in Geneva to pursue a master's in international affairs.
Brittney Kulbeda, a biology major, transferred from Montgomery County Community College with a transfer scholarship and a Cooke national scholarship that allowed her to go to any four-year institution.
Kulbeda, 22, started the Bucknell University Student Transfer Association, which offers mentorship and social activities. She participated in intramural sports and worked with Assistant Professor of Biology Mark Haussmann on his research on aging in birds. She plans to enroll at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa., where she will pursue a dual master's in the physician's assistant and public health programs.
"I now have all these opportunities before me," she said.
Balancing school work and family Manning, an economics major who was born in Antigua, worked as a school bus driver outside Philadelphia for several years before her son, Mathew, now 8, was born. She enrolled in a computer course at Montgomery County Community College through a program for single mothers and later enrolled full-time.
Manning has had to balance her school work with caring for her 8-year-old son, with whom she lives off-campus. She also was hospitalized with a back injury during her second semester and had to adjust her class schedule but said she had a lot of support at Bucknell to help her get through it. Manning has applied to graduate schools and plans to pursue an MBA.
"I have a bachelor's degree now, and that's a big deal. Just being able to promote myself in the job market with a four-year degree makes a big difference," she said. "I think it's a wonderful opportunity, especially for nontraditional students. As long as they have a network of support, anyone can do it."
Schneck, who is considering pursuing a law degree or a master's in education through the Teach Kentucky program in Louisville, Ky., has had the support of family as well as professors, staff and students at Bucknell. Around the same time he found out about the transfer program, Schneck's foster father, Dave Myers, was applying for the chief of staff position at Bucknell.
"I thought he was joking, but I got in, and he got hired at the same time," Schneck said.
The Bucknell scholarship, "gave me an opportunity to really push myself to go to an academically rigorous school and succeed," Schneck said.
"To come here to work with professors with so much experience and knowledge, you really dive into it," he said. "It doesn't have to be the traditional route. There's always the opportunity to go back. The majority of students here are traditional. That's great. That works for them. I wasn't at that place."
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