The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


Continuing education program growing

A different kind of degree

During the day, Pam Merryman teaches junior and AP senior English at First Baptist Academy. At night, she sits at a different desk, taking classes toward a Master of Liberal Arts degree through SMU’s continuing education program in the division of education and lifelong learning.

Merryman was nine hours away from completing her graduate work in administrative education at Texas A&M at Commerce when she had her son. By the time Merryman was ready to start another master’s, her credits had already expired, and she was no longer interested in pursuing administration.

The SMU MLA program suited her needs; she could tailor the course work to her interest (literature), and classes are offered on evenings and weekends at less than half the cost of regular tuition.

“I was drawn back to school because I wanted to deepen my understanding of the subject matter I teach,” Merryman said. “And I love the study of literature, so in some ways this is for fun.”

Students in the MLA program are often professional adults from various fields seeking a broader view of society and culture through interdisciplinary learning, explained Kathi Fisher Watts, director of evening studies.

“Many are lawyers, doctors, bankers, teachers, engineers — the commonality is a thirst for knowledge that blooms in a formal, institutional setting, and in classrooms filled with diverse, highly motivated students,” Watts said.

Merryman said that the student body is the primary difference between the classes she takes now and those she took as an undergraduate.

“We come from many different age groups and professional backgrounds, which adds to the contributions made to the course of study by students,” she said. “There’s quite a bit of life experience in these classrooms.”

In addition to the MLA, the continuing education program also offers an evening bachelor’s degree. It is a completion degree, which means students must transfer in 45-60 hours and a 2.5 GPA from an accredited institution. Students are part-time and take only evening classes, usually with other traditional students.

Evening bachelor’s students must complete the same number of hours and the same general education requirements as traditional students. Upon completion of the program, they can earn either a Bachelor of Humanities, by taking classes in English, philosophy, foreign language, history, art history or religious studies, or a Bachelor of Social Sciences, by focusing on anthropology, sociology, psychology, economics or political science.

Watts said the program works well for students who have received an associate’s degree or had to prematurely quit college.

“Sometimes it’s a career necessity; they find that in their jobs they have hit a ceiling and can’t go further without the ‘piece of paper,’” Watts said. “But sometimes it’s a personal goal — the desire to gain the personal satisfaction of finishing what they began and being a college graduate.”

Watts said SMU’s faculty often volunteer to teach evening classes because they enjoy the mix of traditional and non-traditional students, who all tend to be highly motivated. Merryman has liked many of her professors, especially those who taught her favorite classes — The Literate Mind, Science Fiction and Americans in Paris.

“I think I’ve liked these classes because I’ve liked the professors. That’s the part that never changes from elementary school to grad school –the teacher makes all the difference,” she said. “These professors all know their subject matter and communicate it in a clear, and kind, way to their students. Their passion for the subject is as evident as their knowledge.”

Merryman combines her roles of student and teacher to utilize her passion and knowledge in her classroom as well.

“I’m glad I’m not a full-time student, but I think that’s because I love my job. The fact that for me the two are interrelated makes it more fun,” she said. “I also have a new appreciation for the anxiety and stress my students experience, and that makes me a better teacher.”

Watts complimented the drive and determination of the students in the evening studies programs.

“I admire my students, both graduate and undergraduate, greatly, because they have all taken a big step in terms of time and money,” Watts said. “They are pursuing the life of the mind as adults and, in many cases, sacrificing a lot to achieve these degrees. They truly love learning and understand its power.”

Classes, but no credit

SMU’s first catalog stated this mission: “A university situated in a large city is under an obligation to minister to the educational needs of the city. Southern Methodist University feels a special obligation to the people of Dallas.” SMU reaches the Dallas community with informal courses taught through the continuing studies program.

“We fill the university’s mission to serve not just credit and degree-seeking students, but the student-at-large found in each of us as members of our community,” said Amy Heitzman, director of continuing studies. “Students are there because they have a strong desire to learn, and they treat each moment in class as a well-earned privilege.”

The informal classes are smaller, more relaxed and entirely non-credit. They range from personal enrichment, like travel or creative writing, to professional development, such as communication skills or computer education. Heitzman said the program serves nearly 7,000 students each term through approximately 500 classes.

“Students gain the opportunity for self-growth or the enhancement of their careers,” Heitzman said. “They gain the opportunity to connect with campus faculty and fellow students.”

The program requires payment and registration on a class-by-class basis, and classes vary from week to week. For example, Wednesday night’s class was the first of two sessions on re-careering. Nearly 20 adults, most of them looking as if they’d come straight from work, filled room 204 of Hyer Hall to learn how to find new jobs or careers that fit their personalities and skills.

Students included some SMU alumni and ranged from second-grade teacher to sales rep, editor to engineer. Many said they felt like “square pegs in round holes”; one woman confessed she often wanted to tell her boss to “jump out of a window.” Others were preparing for imminent downsizing or preemptively searching for the next phase of their lives.

Instructor Helen Harkness, published author and president of Career Design, Inc., was there to help them make significant changes by debunking conventional career myths and teaching them to use the chaos in their lives as “the first step to recreation.”

“The edge of your rut has become your horizon,” Harkness told one of the students after explaining that she herself defied the “womb-to-tomb, 40-year career” paradigm by transitioning from “’50s wife” to college professor to entrepreneur.

Harkness noted that most people these days can expect to change careers three to five times. Because of this, she emphasized that continuing education is imperative.

“Adults are absolutely compelled to stay on a learning curve,” she said. “It’s foolish if they don’t.”

However, Harkness advised that going back to school is not the right move until adults have decided what they want to do.

To those undergraduates who can’t imagine dragging themselves to class simply for personal edification, Harkness says this:

y will be coming back.”

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