Trinity Individual Degree Program Paves Paths for Adult Learners
Originally published in The Reporter, spring 2017.
BY ANDREW J. CONCATELLI
Learning has no age limit. That’s the philosophy of the Individualized Degree Program (IDP) at Trinity College. The self-paced path to earning a bachelor’s degree enrolls adults age 23 and older in courses alongside traditional-age students.
Tim Cresswell, dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs and professor of American studies, says that a liberal arts education provides a strong platform for lifelong learning for all of Trinity’s students. “IDP students are examples of lifelong learning in action,” he says. “Their presence enriches the community of learning that is Trinity College.”
All Trinity majors are available to IDP students, who have been valedictorians and salutatorians, Phi Beta Kappa members, and President’s Fellows. IDP students may attend Trinity full time, but most enroll part time as they work and raise families. Most of the IDP students come to the program with some college credits, often from community college, while others are recruited from local businesses or the military. Many are from the Greater Hartford area, and some are first-generation college students. IDP students are eligible for financial aid.
One goal of the program — which will celebrate its 45th anniversary in 2018 — is to offer adult students the same opportunities offered to traditional Trinity students, but in a modified way. For example, the IDP transitional seminar mirrors Trinity’s first-year seminars.
Fox and Company Professor of Economics Diane C. Zannoni, who recently stepped down from her role as IDP director after seven years, says the program “really speaks to the resources and the needs” of adult students. “IDP creates a framework that is really responsive — there is a structure and support the whole way.”
IDP grew out of a 1971 proposal for the Alternate Degree Program, which offered a pathway to the bachelor’s degree based on demonstration of academic proficiency rather than credits for successfully completed courses or length of study. Over time, the focus of the program evolved to what the IDP is today — an undergraduate completion degree program for adult students. For Louise Fisher ’73, an early IDP director, the connection to the program she helped design was very personal. “I was an adult student at Trinity before there was an IDP,” she says. “I was just about the only adult student on campus; people thought I was a professor. … This program is something that was needed for the adult student. There’s no reason why students can’t go to college after the age of 22.”
Fisher says that Trinity faculty members have always been supportive of IDP. “Without the faculty support, this never would have succeeded,” she says. Faculty members serve on the IDP Council and as the students’ advisers.
Many current IDP students first learned about the program from Associate Director Roberta Rogers IDP’10, herself a program graduate. “I found a community here at a time when I didn’t really have one,” Rogers says. “My kids were really young, and my husband traveled for work. I felt something was missing, and this was it. I loved being around people who were interested in ideas and who encouraged me to explore and to find my passion.”
Rogers believes the success of IDP is thanks in part to the careful attention paid to the needs of the students. “Many other schools recruit adult students, but they don’t have a program for adult students,” she says. “This really is a traditional, selective, elite program for nontraditional students.”
The stories of the following three individuals provide insights into Trinity IDP and its vital role in educating adult learners.
FROM SOMALIA TO HARTFORD
Ahmed Yusuf IDP ’97 had never owned any books before he came to the United States as a young man; now he’s writing them.
Born in Somalia, Yusuf lived all over the States as he learned to speak English and pursued his education. He was in his late 20s when a counselor at a community college in Hartford told him about Trinity’s IDP. “I had a relative who graduated from Trinity College, so I was cognizant of the quality of the academics,” Yusuf says. “I was working at the time. The program’s flexibility was the No. 1 attraction. It fits for anyone who has other responsibilities.”
Yusuf designed an interdisciplinary major called human conflict and creative writing, which combined his interests in psychology and English. “I wanted to somehow make sense out of the senseless Somali war,” Yusuf says.
The personalized nature of IDP helped Yusuf form strong bonds at Trinity. “The faculty and staff were patient with me; they talked to me,” he says, naming the late Professor of English Fred Pfeil as a particularly strong influence. “He was one of the greatest human beings,” Yusuf says. “He was the one who introduced me to writing.”
Zannoni and the IDP staff also provided Yusuf with support. “When I lost my job, they were actually delivering groceries to my house. The emotional support was more than I expected,” he says. “I would not be who I am if it were not for the IDP.”
Yusuf now teaches the Somali language at South High School in South Minneapolis. He has authored a collection of short stories in Somali and a book about how Minneapolis has become home to a large Somali population. He also is working on an autobiographical play — which includes Pfeil and Zannoni as characters — a book about Somali-Americans’ generational divide, and a collection of short stories in English called Lion’s Binding Oath, which will be published in August 2017.
A GREAT GIFT
After earning his GED in 1997, Stephen DeMonico IDP’17 worked in information technology and customer support before being laid off in 2010. A postcard he received in the mail that same day from Gateway Community College in New Haven, Connecticut, inspired DeMonico to pursue higher education, where he found his passion for physics. “There’s a real sense of wonder for me in even the most basic physics experiments,” he says.
With his associate’s degree completed, DeMonico recalled a Trinity IDP information session and reached out to Rogers. “I felt that IDP recognized that I had a lot of potential,” he says. “I think they saw some of the same things in me that I saw in me.” The program turned out to be a great fit. “The faculty members make reasonable accommodations. They recognize other obligations in lives that exist outside of school. The real success of IDP is bridging those two worlds,” DeMonico adds.
With majors in physics and interdisciplinary computing coordinated with physics and a minor in models and data, DeMonico worked in the lab of Associate Professor of Physics David Branning to develop a working scientific instrument to identify coincidental events. “This device can be used in education settings to demonstrate quantum theory,” DeMonico says. Named the President’s Fellow in physics for 2015-16, he also was president of the Trinity College Physics Students Association. He is interested in working in a scientific setting, potentially in the growing field of embedded computing, following his graduation.
DeMonico believes that IDP is a benefit to both its students and the Trinity community. “IDP students have these very unique life experiences that add to the classroom. I think there’s a lot of value in that,” he says.
Through his role as an IDP student recruitment associate, DeMonico attended college fairs and gave campus tours, working to attract more students like himself. He says, “This has been a great gift, so I wanted to pay it forward.”
COMING FULL CIRCLE
Mel Cavanaugh IDP ’11 had completed four years of a five-year architecture major at Arizona State University when she left school to work full time. “It’s possibly the one regret that I have in my life,” she says of not finishing her bachelor’s degree then. Cavanaugh was a 30-year-old single mother working at a sales job in Farmington, Connecticut, when she enrolled in Trinity’s IDP. “I was at a turning point in my life,” she says.
“Empowering” is how Cavanaugh describes her experience as an American studies major in IDP, noting that her Trinity professors helped her to become even more outspoken in her social activism. “Each semester I was gaining this confidence and this evolution in my life,” she says. “My world just kept opening up.” While at Trinity, Cavanaugh viewed IDP as a support network. “Professor Zannoni was always the net to catch you if you needed encouragement,” she says.
With an initial goal of working at a nonprofit organization to fight poverty, Cavanaugh considered law school and the Hartford Seminary, but her daughter and others suggested that she should become a teacher. “My daughter said, ‘Your education has changed your life. You’re a different person,’ ” says Cavanaugh, who earned a master’s in education from the University of Connecticut after graduating from Trinity IDP.
Cavanaugh soon learned that Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy (HMTCA) was preparing to open a high school. “As much as Trinity has changed my life, why wouldn’t I want to give back to this school and the Hartford community? It felt like the right thing to do,” she says. Cavanaugh has been at HMTCA for five years, teaching U.S. history, world history, sociology, and psychology to high school students. She also teaches in HMTCA’s summer writing academy and enjoys bringing students to Trinity’s campus to help encourage them.
“I didn’t experience the power of education until I was ready to experience it, and then my education completely changed my life,” Cavanaugh says. “I know how much my professors impacted me, and it’s coming full circle now that I have the ability to have an impact on young people’s lives.”