Pandemic prompts ECU student to return to college at age 43

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, self-described handyman Matt Rice mustered little work. He paints houses, repairs appliances and puts down tile, but with COVID concerns, he felt uncomfortable walking into strangers’ homes.

That was when his wife Amanda discovered the East Carolina University Bachelor of Science in Industrial Technology (BSIT) transfer program, and just like that, Rice was back in college — at age 43.

“I knew I wanted to go back to school, but I didn’t know what I should go for,” Rice said. “She found the program online and said she thought I’d really like it. I was sitting at home doing nothing. I already had an associate degree from when I lived in Minnesota. I used the transfer program here to get in. They accepted my associate degree from Minnesota, and here I am.”

ECU student Matt Rice speaks during a College of Engineering and Technology Student Leadership Council meeting. (Photo by Ken Buday)

Rice is among a growing number of adult learners at ECU. Almost 60% of enrolled undergraduates across the nation are considered non-traditional students, many of whom are 25 years old or older, care for dependents, work full time while enrolled, or are connected to the military.

With many non-traditional students seeking online options, ECU was recently ranked sixth in the nation — and No. 1 in North Carolina — in an inaugural listing of America’s Top Online Colleges by Newsweek.

ECU is poised to build on its success in educating non-traditional students with a focus on expanding support and options for adult learners. A UNC System strategic initiative called Project Kitty Hawk aims to address the needs of North Carolina’s adult learners through distance education. ECU Chancellor Philip Rogers is one of three chancellors named to the planning board for the project, which is expected to go live in two to three years.

Dr. Allen Guidry, interim vice provost for academic affairs, said adult learners are an important part of ECU’s long-standing commitment to public service, regional transformation and student success.

“We know that the transformative power of higher education — whether through pursuing an undergraduate degree to open career pathways, a certificate to upskill or reskill, or a graduate degree for professional advancement — is important to our adult learners,” he said. “It was this desire to provide high-quality options for a wide range of learners, including adult learners, that inspired the development of ECU Online more than a decade ago. Now, we’re looking to build on that foundation by enhancing options for adult learners through developing and offering online programs in some of the highest demand fields, designing industry-informed, non-degree options, and offering innovative program development, delivery and scheduling. These emerging initiatives along with our storied model of student success are a recipe for realizing our institutional commitments.”

The Bachelor of Science in Industrial Technology (BSIT) transfer program is just one of many doors open to adult learners. Dr. David Batts, associate professor in the Department of Technology Systems and head of ECU’s BSIT transfer program, said the program is critical for many in North Carolina as it provides an opportunity for career advancement for those with two-year Associate of Applied Science degrees.

“It provides a seamless transition from the community college to ECU,” Batts said. “The BSIT provides an educational pathway for the AAS graduates that will open up doors and provide job advancement opportunities. These students can come to campus to finish their four-year degree or finish it completely online, which is invaluable as most students continue to work and provide for their families.”

Non-traditional students have a variety of resources on campus to help them through their journeys at ECU. From the Pirate Academic Success Center that offers course specific tutoring in person or online to the Financial Wellness Hubthat provides one-on-one financial coaching sessions and workshops, non-traditional students can find support for any questions they may have.

Rice, who served a five-year tour as a radio technician in the Marine Corps, points to Student Veterans Services and its associate director, Nicole Messina, as valuable resources on ECU’s campus.

“They had a scholarship class on how to apply for different scholarships, and I applied for one and got it through the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs). They were very helpful in that,” Rice said. “I didn’t even know anything about the scholarship. The technology is hard to keep up with, the portals and everything like that, but they walked us through all of that.”

Messina said veterans services caters to military students and veterans with everything from an orientation class, textbook lending library and lunch seminars to transition counseling, work study positions, a mentor program and social opportunities.

“We really try to be a one-stop shop for our military students,” she said.

Messina said veterans should not shy away from getting an education at ECU, especially since all veterans are entitled to in-state tuition through the Choice Act and many have money available to them through military tuition assistance plans.

“Take advantage of that,” she said. “Take advantage of every program that your school offers that may build your resume. Don’t be afraid to be part of things because you’re older or have different life experiences. Study abroad if you want. Apply for those scholarships. Join SGA. Most importantly, remember you can do this school thing. The little bit of struggle you may go through is temporary and worth it for the number of doors it can open.”

Matt Rice started his journey with ECU’s BSIT program in 2021 with online classes and is now taking courses on campus. With a concentration in industrial engineering, he expects to graduate in December.

“I’d like to find a local manufacturing facility and get into production management or middle management,” he said.

After graduating from high school in Minnesota, Rice started college in 1998. He worked a variety of jobs before joining the Marine Corps and serving until 2009. He completed his associate degree in Minnesota. When his wife Amanda found a job she liked at Vidant Medical Center, the couple moved to Greenville in 2016. He credits her for the support he needs to continue his education.

“If I’m doing a quiz online, she doesn’t interrupt, and when I turn in assignments, she’s always asking how I did. She’s just very supportive in that way,” he said. “I can do the school stuff, but it’s paying the bills, getting dinner, going to the dentist or doctor, taking care of the dog, it’s all that extra stuff that can distract you from school, but my wife really helps me with all of that — even though she works full time, too.”

As a 43-year-old, Rice takes classes with students half his age, but he said all have been very accepting of him.

“They don’t say much, but if I’m in a group project or in class, they don’t treat me any differently because I’m older,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter your age or the age of the person sitting next to you. We’re all adults. We’re just at different stages in our lives.”

Rice said he is trying to get more involved in campus. He has joined two student organizations — the Association of Technology Management and Applied Engineering, and the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers — and he’s also part of the new Student Leadership Council, where he brings the perspective of adult learners to an organization that is designed to give students a voice in academic and other matters within the College of Engineering and Technology.

“The first time I went to college, I think I talked to two people,” Rice said. “Now here at ECU in my program, I probably talk to about 10 people I know every day.”

Rice said he is pleased with his experiences and education at ECU and has advice for adults who are thinking about coming back to college.

“Go for it,” he said. “It’s kind of cool coming back to school.”