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VOL. 9 | NO. 27 | Saturday, July 2, 2016

Former Titan Dyson Finally Reaching His Goal

Working adults go back to school to find rewarding second careers

By Linda Bryant

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When is it too late to go back to school and prepare for a new career? Most experts and older students who’ve returned to school at 30, 40, 50 – or even 60 and beyond – will tell you there’s really no limit as long as an older student is motivated and focused.

Non-traditional “adult learners” are flooding educational institutions in search of additional training and degrees. In fact, the nontraditional student is becoming the norm.

“Traditional students” – classified as full-time students living on campus and supported by their parents – represent only 15 percent of current undergraduates, research from the National Center for Education Statistics shows.

The remaining 85 percent are adult learners, employees who study and commuters, most of whom are age 25 and older and actively working toward a career.

Music City Miracle superstar Kevin Dyson has moved on with his life. He has two master’s degrees and will soon complete his doctorate.

(Michelle Morrow/The Ledger)

Former Tennessee Titan Kevin Dyson fits the profile.

Dyson, 41, has earned two master’s degrees since retiring and is working on a doctorate in education from Nashville’s Trevecca Nazarene University. He serves as assistant principal at Independence High School in Thompson’s Station.

A decade ago, he found himself at a crossroads when he left pro football.

At first, Dyson says he set his sights on coaching, hoping to land a high-profile job at the college or pro level. But life and personal experience conspired to place him in front of high school students. Over time, Dyson realized working with kids was as much a part of his life’s path as playing football.

He may be best known for the “Music City Miracle” football play of Jan. 8, 2000 when he ran 75 yards to score the winning touchdown that was instrumental in getting the Tennessee Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV.

But Dyson counts his new career – and all the higher education it’s demanded – as a miracle, too.

“Part of the reason I’m pursuing a doctorate is because it takes away preconceived notions of football players,” Dyson says.

“I’ve never considered myself an academic. I’ve never been a straight-A student. If I’m able to accomplish this, it’s validation that anyone can achieve something like this if they work hard at it.”

Dyson had to work hard to get to the point of pursing a doctorate. Since his retirement in 2005, he’s earned two master’s degrees from Trevecca.

He admits it wasn’t easy.

“The hardest thing is getting started,’’ Dyson adds. “The longer you put it off, the longer it is to get started. But when you get done, when you’ve accomplished it, you’ll be so glad you did. Former teammates have asked me, “How did you do it?” I say, “You know what? I just dug in.”

‘Find a way to do it’

Lisa Butler, 55, decided to prepare for a new career in financial services seven years ago.

She had typically held low-level career jobs that involved some level of accounting skills. But she felt stifled and increasingly irrelevant as more and more fellow workers showed up with degrees.

Lisa Butler proudly shows off her bachelor's degree from Belmont University after going back to school and changing careers. She is the director of client services with HawsGoodwin Financial.

(Michelle Morrow/The Ledger)

“I felt like I lacked polish,” Butler says. “I was surrounded by people with degrees, and I felt like I was going to be left behind. I didn’t want to be the person always left to answer the phones.”

It took Butler six years to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Belmont University’s Adult Degree Program. She now works as the director of client services at HawsGoodwin Financial, a boutique financial planning firm in Brentwood.

Butler is no longer answering the phones. And she’s back at Belmont studying to becoming a Certified Financial Planner, a post-bachelor’s degree certification that takes about a year to complete.

“Just a few years ago, I didn’t even know what it meant to be a financial planner,” she says.

Butler faced many obstacles during her quest to get a degree, not the least of which were serious family health issues and lack of self-confidence.

“I remember crying when I enrolled in my first class,” Butler explains. “A really good friend had to talk me through it. She told me no one was going to fault me if going back to school turned out not to be for me.”

“It was a pivotal moment when I decided to pursue that degree and aim for a more promising career,” she adds. “When you want something bad enough; I think you just find a way to do it.”

Butler gives credit to three things for helping her through her journey to getting a degree. No 1 is the support offered to her via Belmont’s adult degree program. No. 2, she says, is the diversity of Belmont’s program, which mixes traditional and nontraditional students together in the same classes.

Lastly, she says her employer was highly supportive and allowed flexibility in her schedule.

“I can’t tell you how many classes I walked into where I was quite a bit older than the professor,” Butler says, laughing.

“Many of my classmates were 20-somethings. When I was working during the day, they were sleeping. We had to do projects together and form relationships. I ended up learning a lot.

“It can be hard for older adults to get out of their comfort zone when it comes to the ages of their peers,” she adds. “But that’s where a lot of my learning was.

“The younger students often didn’t have a lot of practical knowledge. I found out that my experience (in the working world) really counted for something. We all ended up supporting one another.”

Getting on the fast-track

It’s not unusual for a second career to come about out of necessity.

In 2014, almost 35 years after graduating from Clemson University with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, Knoxville resident Arby Dickert enrolled in Western Governors University Tennessee to pursue a master’s degree in teaching.

Although he wasn’t particularly happy in his longtime career, Dickert, 60, didn’t plan to pursue a new field. That all changed when he was let go from his job in chemical sales.

“My motivation was that I was out of a job,” Dickert says. “At the time, my wife had also lost her job. We looked at each other and said, “What are we going to do? We have two boys getting ready to go to college.”

WGU Tennessee is a nonprofit online university established by the state of Tennessee through a partnership with Western Governors University, a large nonprofit university with over 67,000 students, 50 accredited undergraduate and graduate degree programs in 50 states.

The school was founded by the governors of 19 U.S. states in order to address the need for adult students to learn independent of time and place.

Gov. Bill Haslam established WGU Tennessee in 2013 with a one-time appropriation of $5 million from the state and a $750,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. WGU Tennessee is an integral part of Haslam’s “Drive to 55” program, which aims to raise the state’s number of college graduates from 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025.

Dickert struck out when he applied for multiple jobs related to chemical sales.

“I started interviewing, and it just never went well,” Dickert points out.

“I’ll never forget the look on one HR director’s face. Her eyes went immediately to my grey hair. I knew it was a visual letdown. I pitched really hard for the job, but I knew I wasn’t going to get it.”

A friend of mine said to me, you’ve been in marketing and sales your whole life, always teaching customers how to do things. Why don’t you try teaching?”

About the same time Dickert saw an ad for WGU Tennessee that featured Gov. Haslam.

“There are so many (online) scams out there,” he says. “You just don’t know what’s legitimate and what’s not. I had heard horror stories about people paying lots of money for online schools, coming out with a certificate and unable to get a job. I figured if Bill Haslam was endorsing it, it must be for real.”

Dickert was attracted to several aspects of WGU Tennessee. It was affordable compared to other programs he’d considered. The school’s structure allows students to pay by study time, not by credit hour. Basic tuition for most programs is $2,890 per term, a significant savings compared to the rates of other Tennessee public colleges and universities and private schools.

WGU also allows students to move as fast as they are able. Dickert was determined to dive into his studies on a full-time basis and complete his degree quickly so he could land a teaching job. He completed the coursework for his master’s and student teaching in eight months.

“The degree cost me in the neighborhood of $5,300,” Dickert says. “Without the degree and without WGU, I don’t think I’d have a job today.

“I was out of work, so I treated it like a job,” he adds. “I went down to my office every day. I took tests and wrote papers. I was scared at first, but I got the hang of it. My mentor helped tremendously.

“From my experience in this program, if you ask for help, you get it.”

Dickert was able to complete his student teaching at Hardin Valley Academy in Knoxville, where his son also attended as a senior last year. Not long after he completed his student teaching he landed a job at Hardin Valley as a chemistry teacher.

From journalism to law

Elizabeth Betts Hickman, 48, switched from a 15-plus-year career in journalism, which meant returning to school at the Nashville School of Law in the late 2000s.

“I knew the (newspaper and journalism) industry I was in was in a long-term decline, and I knew I couldn’t fix it,” Hickman says. “It was difficult, but I stepped back. I needed a new plan.”

ELIZABETH BETTS HICKMAN

Hickman saw many crossover skills between journalism and law.

“There were some strong parallels,” she explains. “Both involve research and dealing with all sorts of people from different walks of life. You deal with government and the court system in both fields. They both involve writing, reading and comprehension. The writing (in law) is functional, not florid. Both professions also involve advocacy and service.”

Hickman worked full-time at a trust company while working on her law degree, which she completed in four years, graduating in 2009. She is now an associate attorney at Goodman Callahan Blackstone specializing in trust administration and probate law.

She advises second-career seekers to put careful thought into their choices.

“I think it’s best to really go about this kind of decision with intention,” Hickman explains. “You can’t just say I hate my job; I hate my industry; I’m going to go do something else.

“You want to choose something you really want to do,” she adds. “When you go to school at an older age, you’re probably not doing it because Mom and Dad want you to. You are making decisions on your own personal interests, your own personal situation.”

Hickman was motivated by many of the other older students in her program. When she got discouraged she remembered the mom who showed up in class a few days after giving birth and the classmate who drove from Jackson to Nashville to attend classes.

“There was a 70-year old woman in my class and a fair amount of people in their 50s,” Hickman says.

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