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Women who returned to college are inspiring others

Participants of North Shore Community College's Women In Transition program with Margaret Figgins-Hill (front row, fourth from left).

“Look!” one woman said, pointing out at the sky. “There’s a rainbow! It’s a sign, ladies. Time to just do it.”

Allison Belisle

It was early evening at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, and women were chatting with staff near the windowed walls of the Hartleb Technology Center. A program on women returning to school later in life had just ended, and most of the 25 or so who attended had stuck around to ask questions or fill out an application for enrollment.

Many women considering returning to college are waiting for some sort of sign. The pressures of working, raising a family, or both can make it hard to add school to the mix.


Some make it work. Allison Belisle, a panelist at the event, graduated from the NECC nursing program last May. Today, she’s a registered nurse working in Woburn. But it took her seven years to complete her degree.

Belisle, 26, dropped out of a four-year college as a teen, but was always interesting in studying nursing, her dream career.

“But everyone told me why I shouldn’t sign up for nursing,” she told the group. At the time, there was a two-year wait to get into the NECC nursing program. “I didn’t have a car to get to clinical sites,” Belisle said. “I had just dropped out, so was I really a great candidate?”

So, she got her associate’s degree in communications. When she began looking at bachelor’s degree programs — this time with a husband and young child — nursing programs again seemed more appealing.

“I met with an adviser,” she said. “And instead of being met with all the negative answers, she told me I was a great candidate [for the nursing program], and that I should apply. And I got in.”

Daniel Richer, director of recruitment and admissions at Northern Essex, said it’s not uncommon for adults to seek their degrees at the community college.


“It’s not a surprise that adult learners are often balancing a number of different things,” Richer said. “Community college is able to offer flexible scheduling.”

The addition of online courses alongside traditional classes also helps speed the process.

Patricia Lyon of Methuen, another panelist at the event, had never started college, but had no trouble getting a job with just her high school diploma. After years working in government, she took a position at the middle school her children attended. After they graduated, the job lost its charm.

“It had become almost like Bill Murray in ‘Groundhog Day,’” said Lyon, 59. “I started to look for jobs, but every job I looked at required a college degree.”

Patricia Lyon

That led her to Northern Essex. She graduated in 2013 with an associate’s degree in business management. Today, Lyon is both working in the athletics department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and taking classes there for a master’s degree.

“I feel confident that I can do anything,” she said.

For some women, it’s the extra support that college administrators give that makes a difference. Margaret Figgins-Hill, a social work professor at North Shore Community College in Danvers, is director of the Women in Transition program. Each year, she works as an adviser to a group of about 20 first-year female students.

“A lot of these women have been told all their life that they couldn’t do it, that they weren’t good enough for college,” Figgins-Hill said. “And then they end up on the dean’s list.”


Katie O’Leary, a Gloucester resident, went through the Women in Transition program. She had left a domestic violence situation, and often worked three or four jobs to support her four children.

O’Leary was nervous to go back to school at age 30. “I had no self esteem whatsoever,” she said. “I didn’t see how I was going to fit in with a bunch of teenagers.”

But Women In Transition gave her the outlets and resources she needed to keep going, and advice on how to get financial aid and scholarships to pay for school. Last year, O’Leary’s daughter had a health scare that kept her in the hospital for three months. Her connection with Figgins-Hill and other students in the Women in Transition program allowed her to keep up with classes during a difficult time.

“They called and said, ‘You can do it,’” O’Leary said. “It’s been constant support.”

O’Leary, now 37, got her associate’s degree in human services three years ago, and she’s about to finish her bachelor’s degree and start a master’s program at Lesley University while working full time in her field.

Charlene Woodard Handout

To get the support and resources needed to get their degrees, women have to find the inspiration to even enroll. That’s why Charlene Woodard, who lives in Haverhill and also spoke at the gathering, pitched the idea of the Women Returning to School event. Woodard, 56, has works in communications at Northern Essex since 1990, and returned to school there in 1994. She took one or two classes a semester, and eventually received an associate’s degree in 2009. She went on to get her bachelor’s degree at Southern New Hampshire University and this year will complete her master’s at Saint Joseph’s College in Maine, both online.


“It opens the door to a lot of women who, like myself, probably thought they never could go back to school,” Woodard said. “I thought it would be great to have this event so they could hear other women, and their stories, of how they did it.”

Laura King can be reached at laura.king@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauraelyseking.