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Eckerd graduates 235 'experienced learners'

By SHEILA MULLANE ESTRADA

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Completing an odyssey that began 18 years ago, Mary Keller received her bachelor's degree Saturday. Now she has another dream to chase: becoming a lawyer specializing in American Indian affairs.

Keller is one of 235 men and women, mostly in their 30s, 40s and 50s, who were honored in graduation ceremonies at Eckerd College. These students in the Program for Experienced Learners celebrated the end of long hours of studying in class and at home.

The course work was accomplished atop their routines as husbands, wives, parents and, often, full-time employees.

Keller, 36, took classes at Purdue University and several other Indiana colleges in the 1980s before moving here. Four years ago, she graduated from St. Petersburg Junior College.

"I wanted a four-year degree," Keller said, "but I found I couldn't do it and work full time. ... So, after more than eight years at my job, I decided to quit and enroll in Eckerd's PEL program."

When she started at Eckerd, Keller said that all she wanted was a degree -- in anything. "My American studies classes at Eckerd got me interested in Indian affairs," Keller said. "I decided this is what I want to do when I grow up." She is fascinated with tribal sovereignty, Indian gaming, land and water rights, and treaty issues.

Keller is preparing to take her law boards to qualify for the University of Arizona's program in Native American law. If she is accepted, her husband is prepared to move as well, "as long as we have a place for the sailboat," she said.

About 1,300 students are enrolled in the PEL program. Since PEL's inception in 1978, about 2,800 men and women have received degrees.

Adults 25 or older are granted college credit for knowledge and skills gained on the job and through life experiences. Credit also is given for college work (grade "C" or better) at any accredited college, no matter how long ago. As a result, most PEL students are able to complete their degrees within two or three years. PEL students are required to take at least nine courses at Eckerd.

The courses concentrate class work into half the time (eight versus 16 weeks) for busy adults. Students can take up to two marathon classes -- five hours in an evening or on the weekend -- during each session.

Bradenton resident Lois Kesselring, who graduated from high school in 1946 and is now in her 70s, received her degree Saturday in creative writing.

Sharon Kennedy, 42, majored in human development. The American Airlines flight attendant moved to Tampa Bay seven years ago. The two years she has spent taking classes at Eckerd have paid off, Kennedy said, by qualifying her for a position as a flight attendant recruiter.

Guy Keim, 36, is a firefighter with the Pinellas Park Fire Department. Over the years he has collected two associate's degrees and once enrolled at the University of South Florida to complete his bachelor's degree requirements.

"The USF classes were like a warehouse. You just felt like a number. Then I heard about Eckerd's program and decided to try it here. I really liked the small class sizes. It was really worth doing," said Keim, who received his degree in organizational studies and public leadership.

Now Keim, who is married and has two children and one "one on the way," is excited about enrolling in a master's degree program.

Reinvention of lives is the whole point of the PEL program, said administrator Kristy Cardellio. "There is no time limit for completion and often our students take a break and come back, sometimes years later. PEL students pay as they go ($675 per course), and their old credits will always count."

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