How Northwestern’s oldest undergraduates navigate college.

After traveling to 54 countries, moving up through multiple successful tech companies and growing her cat’s Instagram following to 16,200, Jacqueline Methling decided to go back to school. Methling, 40, received her bachelor’s degree in communications 18 years ago from Harper College and Northern Illinois University. But, since September, she's been studying business leadership as an undergraduate at Northwestern.

“I’ve had a really successful career,” Methling says. “But I felt this yearning to go back and get a degree from a university which I knew was commensurate with my capabilities.”

Northwestern’s School of Professional Studies (SPS) is home to more than 2,000 students like Methling continuing their education in adulthood while still caring for their families, pursuing careers and maintaining other aspects of their lives.
“A lot of these adults, they went to school, they had to drop out for some reason, maybe they went back and dropped out again,” says SPS Dean Thomas Gibbons. “Our programming is really designed for people to come in at different points in their lives when they need education.”

Undergraduates in SPS can choose from 13 degree programs, from organizational behavior to mathematics to radio/television/film. Working with the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Communication, SPS allows about 20 to 30 of its undergraduate students to sit in on courses with "day-school" students (undergraduate students outside of SPS).

“I’m very impressed, both with the depth of observation many students in the class have and their willingness to be open- minded about other’s perspectives.”
says Justin Walker, an SPS student currently taking a Chicago Field Studies course with day-school students.

After graduating high school, Walker joined the special forces. He served in the military for 12 years before leaving to work with several non-profits and  start his own consulting firm. Now, the 34-year-old studies organizational behavior and business leadership in SPS.

“I heard a million people tell me that I don’t need to go back to college,” Walker says. “But it’s not about what other people think.”

Walker is set to graduate at the end of winter quarter and plans to spend his spring sailing around the world with his wife, Nataliya.

While most students attend SPS part-time, a select few have successfully petitioned to attend the University full-time.

“We look at [petitions] carefully because we don’t want someone working a full-time job and trying to go full-time to college,” Gibbons explains. “It’s not possible, they tend to fail, so we’re somewhat paternal about that.”

Kian Kermani, a 31-year-old economics major who started at SPS a year and a half ago, is one of the few students in the program permitted to attend Northwestern full-time. In addition to the workload of typically four or five classes each quarter at SPS, Kermani works full-time at E-trade Financial Corporation as a product manager.

“I go to work all day, go to class all night and study every weekend,” Kermani says. “My whole life is consumed by work and school. I don’t really do anything else.”
Kermani recalls taking summer courses that combined SPS studenwts with day-school students, as well as multiple courses in the evening during the regular school year. In some of these courses, Kermani estimates that he was the only SPS student in attendance. But, for him, those classes were just like any other.

Because of the school’s older demographic, SPS admission officers look not only at past transcripts, but at the career achievements, personal projects and life accomplishments.

“We are making decisions primarily based on if it’s likely that the student will be successful here,” says Peter Kaye, the assistant dean of the undergraduate program at SPS. “For someone who has been working steadily in IT for 10 years, we consider things like promotions or expanded responsibility.”

Additionally, SPS offers some students the chance to be provisionally admitted, with the expectation that they must  achieve a GPA of at least a 3.0 in order to continue in the program. By weeding through applicants who admissions feels aren’t ready to commit to being part-time students, Gibbons says that SPS maintains a 70 percent graduation rate.

“You can always go back, you can always enrich your life with education, you can always learn more,” Methling says. “There’s no doubt in my mind, based on the five weeks I’ve spent here at Northwestern, that it’s worth it.”