Colleen Dunn-Killebrew has had a successful career, performing on the Broadway stage in big productions, including Cats, Annie and Sunset Boulevard, the latter with award-winning actress Glenn Close. Her work includes TV, movies and print and commercial work. She’s an actress, singer and dancer with what she describes as “a tricky educational past” that includes three colleges and universities but no diploma.
Chris Taite entered Montclair State University in 2009 with plans to pursue a finance degree. Then he switched majors to history. He admittedly didn’t avail himself of University resources, noting that he didn’t know his advisor. After three years, he decided to leave school to get a job and help his family.
Dunn-Killebrew, 54, of Ridgewood, and Taite, 31, of Bayonne, are now working toward finishing their undergraduate degrees, part of the first cohort of students in the University’s new Degree Completion Program. Launched last fall, the program is designed for students 25 or older, with 60 transferable credits and at least a 2.0 GPA. They also must have been out of school for two or more years. Students can earn a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Humanities or Education Studies; other concentrations may be added in the future. Because the courses are online, students do not have to pay fees.
“Our main goal is to provide a pathway for adults who started college to return and earn their degree,” says Degree Completion Programs Assistant Director Jane Sanchez Swain. “Many of our students are returning to Montclair or transferring from other institutions with a good number of free electives, so this program is perfect as it provides the fastest and most direct path to degree attainment. They can complete this degree in as little as 18 months.’’
Montclair’s returning students are among many Americans known as “some college, no degree” – a population numbering 36 million, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. In New Jersey, that number is almost 740,000, according to the center, which estimates that 10% of that population are “potential completers.”
Sanchez Swain and her University College colleagues hope to recruit many of them to the program, noting, “That means that there are more than 74,000 New Jersey residents with some college and no degree that we hope to connect with.”
For now, the degree-completion team is focused on supporting and learning from the current cohorts: nine students who entered in fall 2021 and another 12 students who registered this spring.
Time to finish what they started
Sanchez Swain recently conducted a focus group with some of the students and learned that:
- For many, the fact that they did not finish college the first time weighed on them and lingered in their minds as unfinished business.
- Their decision to return was very personally motivated and a point of personal satisfaction.
- They see this program as a pathway to meet their goal of a college degree and the first step in their long-term pursuit of furthering their education and advancing their careers.
- They have learned so much about themselves and life since they were last enrolled and felt that this was the right time to “finish what they started.”
Those findings are echoed by Nick Farriella, 31, who enrolled last fall.
“Despite having the ideal corporate job that one tries to get after college, I had that without having a degree. So, it always felt like something was missing,” says Farriella, a fiction writer.
Like Dunn-Killebrew, he attended several universities and had previously applied to Montclair State but didn’t get accepted. Farriella, who lives in Montclair, would drive through the Montclair campus on his way to Route 46 and feel a twinge of regret. When he was laid off from his job as a copywriter for Bed Bath & Beyond, Farriella decided he would take a look at the University.
“I don’t want to be too romantic, but one night in June, I was driving through and I was like, ‘Maybe I should look into going back to school,’ so the next morning I was just browsing on Montclair’s webpage, and then I saw the banner ad for this program,” Farriella says. “The program sounded great, and I met the requirements, so I decided to apply.”
Asked what he’s gained from returning to school, Farriella says: “Confidence that I can do it, that I am doing it. I’ve just finished a semester, and for the first time ever, I’m on the Dean’s List. Also, I’m actually making progress toward a goal.”
The degree-completion program is designed to help returning students succeed. They are provided with advisors, career coaches and perhaps most important, more manageable class schedules. Rather than a regular 15-week semester, it is broken up into two half-terms or eight-week classes. Students, who are often juggling full-time jobs, families and more, take two classes per eight-week cycle, all online.
“Our semester is set up in a very distinct way for this population,” Sanchez Swain explains. “Why? They’re busy. So instead of juggling four or five classes at a time, …this feels a lot more manageable to them. They don’t feel as overwhelmed.”
From Broadway to hitting the books
Eager to launch her career as a performer, Dunn-Killebrew left her native Pittsburgh to move to New York as a teenager, leaving behind Point Park University, where she took a few college classes, while working toward her high school diploma.
“I couldn’t wait to get to the city to start my career, and I had great success in doing that,” she says. “I performed in nine Broadway shows, five of the shows I helped create from workshop situations to bring to the stage, and I also did TV and movies and commercial work. I was having a great career, and in the back of my head, I was always like, ‘Why should I go back to school while I’m performing?’ ”
A life-threatening illness led to her decision to enroll at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) in 1998. Dunn-Killebrew remembers feeling as though something was wrong. She was getting winded while performing and thought perhaps she needed to work out more to increase her stamina. But then she started blacking out. Newly married and just back from her honeymoon, she went to see a cardiologist. An echocardiogram revealed a hole in her heart the size of a quarter and “that I was on my way quickly to rupturing my heart.”
After open-heart surgery, she took a break from Broadway, recovered and returned to school, earning a scholarship to Hunter.
There she designed a major in healing arts with a focus on how people heal, she says. “It was in this journey of three years that I was like, if I don’t recover, I’m still going to have a good life. I’m going to go back and create an opportunity to help other people that have also gone through what I’ve gone through.”
By this time, though, she was also a wife and mother, and the work was too much, she says, so she quit school again. “In the back of my head I keep thinking there will be a time I’ll go back to school and finish my education,” she says.
Now she’s doing just that. Dunn-Killebrew has always valued education and it was on one of her many drives past campus while taking her children to and from school that she decided to look into Montclair’s program and enrolled last fall.
While taking classes strictly online has meant “a steep learning curve,” Dunn-Killebrew says the convenience “supersedes everything else right now.”
“Being a returning adult, it’s really important when you have a lot of other commitments to be able to navigate your own schedule and learning, so that was a huge thing for me,” she says. “I can do my studies at 11 o’clock at night when the kids are in bed if I don’t have time during the day; the convenience of that has been really essential for me to be able to finish.”
Her goal is to “develop an arts program for underserved communities or teach theater arts in college or all of those things. I’d love to be on the ground floor of developing programs and being helpful to communities that really don’t have the financial means for our programs.”
Not surprisingly, Dunn-Killebrew is a big proponent of completing one’s education, as well as being a lifelong learner.
“It’s important for people to know it doesn’t matter what age you are, that you can still grow and learn and accomplish things that you’ve set out to do in your life,” she says.
Fulfilling a promise
When Chris Taite left Montclair State in 2012, he promised his father that one day he would return. Years went by.
“It was something that ate at me,” he says.
But, he says, his focus was elsewhere at the time.
“I had people depending on me, and I didn’t have enough money, so after three years, I ended up leaving,” he recalls. Intent on helping his family financially, he landed a job with Con Edison, starting at an entry level position, general utility worker. “I was always just helping and providing for others.”
Taite grew up watching his father, Virgillio, who came to the U.S. from Panama as a child, work hard and provide for his family. Taite’s mother died when he was just 14 months old, and he and his two siblings are close to their father, who always emphasized the importance of education to his children.
Still, Taite says his father never gave him a hard time about his decision to drop out. His family has always supported and encouraged him.
Taite, too, always wanted more for himself. After studying supervisors and their backgrounds at his job, he had a realization: “I was selling myself short. They were no more intelligent or more capable than me…Last year, I applied and became a supervisor, someone with just a high school diploma.”
His father, who also works at ConEd, had urged him to apply for a supervisory position and cheered his promotion.
Then one day last summer, Taite says, it seemed the universe conspired to let him know it was time to return to school. While talking with his sister on his way to work, she asked him about finishing his degree. Later the same day, while talking with his dad on the drive home, his dad posed the same question.
As if on cue, the next morning, Montclair State came calling.
“I got an email from Montclair saying, ‘Hey, come back to school,’” he says, smiling at the providence of it all. “At 17, 18, I wasn’t ready for Montclair, but at 30, Montclair reached out and said, ‘Hey we’re ready for you.’”
And when he got accepted to Montclair the second time, he shared the news with his father by sending him his acceptance letter.
“He was so excited,” Taite says. “Ever since I got this new job in management, he’s been excited and super proud. It makes me feel good that I make him proud now that I’m back in school. He believes in me. Having someone in your corner who believes in you is everything.”
Now finishing his degree in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Humanities, Taite includes the degree-completion program staff among those he counts in his corner, and already he is talking about pursuing a master’s degree after he graduates.
“I go to school now, for me. I’m thankful. I’ve enjoyed every moment of it,” he says. “The support from [University College Associate Dean] Daphne Galkin and Jane has instilled this confidence in me. Jane saying a simple, ‘I’m proud of you,’ puts an extra battery in my pack.”
That’s not to say it is easy. Taite recalls once, while supervising a crew making repairs four stories underground, having to scramble to find cell phone service so that he could use his phone as a hotspot for his laptop. Wearing his hard hat, he sat on some stairs, completed a paper that was due that day and submitted it. He was pleased when his professor commented that he liked a specific section of his paper.
“I thought, ‘You have no idea what I had to go through just to hit submit. I had to jump through hoops just to hand this in,’ so it’s good to get that feedback.”
He looks forward to graduation. “Having this new degree opens a whole new world to me,” Taite says. “Who knows? I might climb the corporate ladder.”
Sanchez Swain understands and encourages the students’ enthusiasm.
“They’re really taking steps and pushing through to achieve what they have dreamed of doing, and being a part of that is ultimately why I do what I do and what brings me the most joy,” she says.