The Changing Faces of College Graduates

By Lisa K. Anderson 

We often hear the term graduation season and picture baby-faced 18- and 22-year-olds, enthusiastically throwing their caps into the sky.

But a 2011 Center for Law and Social Policy report states that yesterday’s nontraditional student is today’s traditional student, and indeed, colleges across the country are witnessing a changing student body.

The Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success found in 2008 that more than one-third of undergraduate students were over the age of 25 and nearly 25 percent were parents.

A more diversified college population is only growing. Among the Mt. Hood Community College Saints who earned their associate degrees last weekend was Darrel Pearce.

The 69-year-old former long haul trucker returned to school in winter 2011 to study hospitality and tourism management.

Born with what doctors believe is hereditary spastic paraplegia, a neurological disorder that affects his ability to walk, Pearce dreams of becoming an independent travel agent, marketing to people with disabilities.

Pearce wants to connect them with airlines and destinations accommodating to their needs, ensuring that anyone who has the desire to travel can do so.

He also wants to send a message that it’s never too late to follow a different path or chase a new dream.

“Never sell yourself short and know there’s always something out there for you,” said Pearce, an intern with the West Columbia Gorge Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center.

An Oregon native who moved to Boring in 1997 after living in California and Texas, Pearce now sees losing his job several years ago as a “godsend” — an opportunity to go back to school, re-educate and do something different.

During the past 10 weeks, Pearce has worked with Marcia Chiaudano, office and hospitality manager with the West Columbia Gorge Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center.

He also has worked with fellow MHCC hospitality student Loni Smith, 58, who will finish her program next year.

“They are just delightful and do so much ‘in the trenches’ here,” Chiaudano said. “We pride ourselves on giving the inside scoop, offering people a personal bond with a local. It’s a great privilege.

“Our goal (with the internship program) is to perpetuate the industry for those who are learning about it. In 10 weeks we just scratch the surface on what the visitor center is all about, but it’s very exciting.”

Smith dreamed of becoming a flight attendant when she was a little girl, but life took a different turn.

Married at 18 and raising three children, mostly on her own, Smith worked in banking and social services in the Hood River area.

After being out of work and with her children grown, Smith came back to school in 2012, moving to East County in 2013 to attend Mt. Hood Community College.

“Never give up on your dreams and try to complete those things, regardless of whether other things have gotten in the way,” Smith said.

Smith said she would love to work for a visitors bureau or resort in management, with a dream of retiring in Mexico.

She, her daughter and son-in-law also have tossed around the idea of combining their talents to create a small boutique hotel. Smith would handle events and registration, her daughter would cook and her son-in-law would run the auditing department.

Pearce noted that while many countries outside the United States are not as up-to-speed on their provisions, there are more and more options for folks who are aging or facing disabilities.

He’s seeing the light in the tourism industry, and hoping that provisions continue to expand, especially for members of his generation.

“I’m in the baby boomers era,” Pearce said. “The numbers are climbing at a rapid pace for those who still want to travel.

“If I do the groundwork and advertise it, I will be busier than I want to be,” Pearce joked.