An essay by Dr. Jennifer Sasser, gerontology program director, was published in the International Journal of Reminiscence and Lifelong Learning in January 2015.
Donna Gentry is a woman who sets goals and reaches them.
Star in an off-Broadway show? Done. Live in Europe. Check. Complete a marathon and multiple triathlons? Done. Finish her college degree? That's now checked off the list, too, thanks to her experience at Marylhurst University.
Donna graduated from Marylhurst in June 2012 with a BA in Communication, but her higher education journey began nearly 40 years ago when she began college as a teenager in New Orleans.
"I was too young, and college was too much to handle," Donna recalled. "I was an actress and stand-up comedienne, and I was getting all these jobs, so I thought, 'Why earn a degree?'"
She eventually moved to New York, where the competition for acting jobs was noticeably tougher. She started temping, and fell into a niche as an administrator for law firms large and small, national and international. By her late 20s, she was managing up to 150 people and multi-million-dollar budgets, and launching what would be a demanding 20-year career.
Donna's acting fell by the wayside a bit, though she did write three shows and wrote and starred in her own one-woman show, Love is a Many Splintered Thing, where she played multiple characters.
A move west
Even with all her success, her unfinished bachelor's degree kept nagging at her.
"I tried for years to complete my degree, and my job always got in the way," Donna said. But in the college courses she did take, she got much better grades, and learned that subjects like math were no longer intimidating to her after her real-world experience managing budgets and people.
The tipping point in her life came after 24 years in New York in, of all places, a subway.
"I was on my way to work on the subway, and a woman next to me completed her entire toilette – including a change of clothes – on the ride," Donna remembered with wonder. "That was the point where I said, 'I'm not doing this anymore.'"
Not long after, she and her husband visited Oregon, fell in love with it, and traded in their 15 by 100-foot rowhouse in Brooklyn for a spacious mountaintop home on five acres in Newberg.
"Oregon has been this wonderful experience," Donna said. "There's a sense of community, lots of patience here. When I do volunteer work, I see the difference it makes."
She quickly immersed herself in her new community, serving on the boards of Willamette Shakespeare and the Newberg Education Foundation. She's a Newberg Early Bird Rotary Club member and a strong supporter of the Chehalem Cultural Center. She also founded the Chehalem Players Repertory Theater, directing performances and producing a two-woman show in which she co-stars in October 2012: Two Men Doing CPR (learn more on Donna's website).
Donna fashioned a new, multi-faceted career for herself -- as an adult learning facilitator, a stager of homes for resale and redesigner of houses in prep for remodeling.
And she also discovered Marylhurst, and the personalized learning environment she'd been craving for decades.
Back to school
Donna quickly learned how many credits she could transfer. Department of Communication Studies Chair Jeff Sweeney "sized me up like that" and counseled her in the right direction to earn a degree that fit her goals. And the Prior Learning Assessment Program, which allows students opportunities to earn college credit by demonstrating college-level learning acquired on the job and elsewhere, really sold her.
"The PLA team walked me through this degree program. It was an opportunity to highlight what I'd been working on already while learning the theory and ethics behind communication. The process was fascinating to me," Donna said. "Having to examine your life and what you've achieved through a new lens makes you realize, 'I know stuff.'"
Donna lauds the support she got from the PLA team at every stage of her education journey, particularly when she was discouraged.
"The PLA team provides not just emotional support, but they give you the tools to get through the courses and have fun doing it," Donna explained. "You also become friends with your PLA buddies who are going through this challenging time together."
Donna earned 36 credits through PLA, a big step toward what she needed to complete her bachelor's degree.
"I wanted that piece of paper, but it became so much more," Donna said. "I was having so much fun learning, I didn't want to stop."
Her Marylhurst coursework allowed her to go much more deeply into the "how" and "why" of what she does as an adult learning facilitator. And she discovered relevance in her classes.
"The practical tools used in the marketplace are used in classes," Donna commented. "Marylhurst also changed my language. I can more easily articulate what I do."
She was surprised to find students of all ages in her classes, and made real friendships, even in her online courses. She has great memories of her instructors and all those who "touched" her at some point, from her very first appointment as a prospective student to her commencement.
"Torey Browne was a transformative writing instructor in that she helped me understand how a bachelor's degree is akin to being a journeyman," Donna said. "Her writing course convinced me that I must get my master's degree.
"Marylhurst was life altering. I'm dedicated to that place."