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College of Eastern Idaho provides second chance for adult students

Back to school

Melissa Sudweeks poses for a photo at her home on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Sudweeks, who has a three-year-old boy Jackson, has been taking online classes through College of Eastern Idaho. Sudweeks decided that she wanted to go back to school after quitting several years ago because of health issues.

Melissa Sudweeks is getting a second chance.

Every week and every other weekend, Sudweeks takes care of her 3-year-old son, Jackson, by herself. On this Tuesday afternoon, he squirms on her lap and cries for a snack for a few moments before quietly watching his favorite TV show on Sudweeks’ phone.

An online student at College of Eastern Idaho, Sudweeks, 24, is trying to get her life turned around.

Her safety net: the community college she decided to attend after meeting with Natalie Hebard, executive director of CEI’s Foundation, at a Givent Executive Network networking event last year.

After dropping out of Idaho State University during her freshman year due to migraines and health concerns six years ago, Sudweeks enrolled at CEI and started taking classes again this past year to help make a better life for her and Jackson. She’s taking 15 credit hours of online classes — three business classes, a psychology class, and a law and justice class — this semester while caring for Jackson and bouncing between multiple part-time, secretarial jobs to stay financially afloat.

She hopes to eventually study sociology at Idaho State University.

She lives in a two-bedroom apartment near Iona, living in the basement with Jackson and using a $1,000 foundation scholarship from CEI as well as federal Pell Grants to maintain a steady life for her and her son.

Melissa Sudweeks holds her son Jackson Henderson, 3, during an interview with the Post Register at her home on Tuesday, March 19, 2019.

She said CEI’s affordability was a big reason she decided to go into its two-and-two program, a program that allows students to transfer to an Idaho public university after receiving their associate degree from CEI. The college’s tuition, at $129 per credit, is the lowest out of Idaho’s community colleges.

“It just kind of haunted me that I failed at something,” Sudweeks said about going back to school. “And I didn’t want to try again to fail all over again. So it’s held me back a lot, but I was divorced about three years ago, and so (my mindset) has changed. I have to make sure I can take care of Jackson.”

Eventually, Sudweeks said she wants to find a career where she can help those affected by sexual and domestic abuse.

Originally from Pocatello and a graduate of Century High School, Sudweeks has been through a lot since dropping out of college in 2013. After high school she moved to Pacific Palisades, Calif., to become a full-time nanny. She also started to study online courses at ISU in 2012.

After suffering severe migraines and dealing with chronic headaches on top of the stresses of school, Sudweeks dropped out and moved back to Pocatello to be closer to family. The next couple of years were a whirlwind. She married in 2014, lived in Rexburg at one point, had Jackson, got divorced, co-owned a now-defunct business in Pocatello and then moved to Idaho Falls for a fresh start.

Today, she spends her time balancing coursework, parenting, work and trying to find her path to a better life.

Melissa Sudweeks chat with her son Jackson Henderson, 3, at her home on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Sudweeks decided that she wanted to go back t…

She recently was selected as the lead for Sounds Summer Musical , “Once Upon a Mattress” — playing the lead role of Princess Winnifred. She said being involved in theater helps her get away from the stresses of school and life.

College of Eastern Idaho Center for New Directions Coordinator Julie McMurtrey said 254 people have utilized the Center for New Directions program to help them get back into college and out of poverty and/or difficult situations including domestic violence and sexual abuse.

The program assists single-parent students and those from nontraditional backgrounds with résumé and cover letter reviews as well as mock job interviews. It also provides workshops and counseling for self-esteem, anxiety and mental health issues.

“We get up in the morning and the car doesn’t start and we’re irritated, but we can take our partner’s car, we can call a buddy, we can do something. We can figure it out,” McMurtrey said. “A lot of (adult students) don’t have that luxury. A (dead) car battery, a flat tire, or a sick babysitter can really derail them. They don’t have a strong network of resources.”

Sudweeks said the program helped her find her eventual major and set a realistic plan to get back to ISU.

McMurtrey said she has previously worked with numerous single parents, including one mother who went to school while caring for her two children. She said for many single parents, a common denominator is fear of breaking from family traditions and a lack of time available for studies. Those fears can cause anxiety for those looking to get back into college.

“I think it is fear. Fear of the unknown,” McMurtrey said. “They don’t they’re good enough, they think it’s too hard and they’re not going to be able to afford it.”

Seventy-five percent of CEI’s students are between 21 and 50 years old. Sixty-four percent of its students are part-time, according to the college’s website.

And while there is a correlation between adult learners and self-motivation, according to research done by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, there could be a link between potential mental health problems due to stress and returning to school, according to the Journal of American College Health.

Blaney Hanvey, a counselor at the ISU-Idaho Falls branch campus, said many students who return to school later in life have to readjust their schedules — work, family and social — to get re-acclimated to college.

Idaho State University counseling and testing director Rick Pongratz said the department counseled 59 students who live with their children during the 2017-18 school year.

Sudweeks said she’s received counseling from Family Service Alliance in Pocatello since dropping out of ISU and going through a divorce. She said she has become an advocate for mental health services.

“When you start school, life doesn’t stop,” Hanvey said. “And whatever stresses you had before, now you’re adding an additional piece to it and then if you haven’t been in school for 10 to 15 years, haven’t taken a math class, you have that extra anxiety and stress about it.”

But for Sudweeks the sacrifice is worth it.

“I’ve been in the mindset where everything I do now benefits my future,” Sudweeks said. “But I also need to benefit my soul and happiness right now, too. ... I want to live, not just float.”

Luke O’Roark is a reporter for the Post Register. He can be reached at 208-542-6763. You can also follow him on Twitter: @LukeORoark

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