Cheryl Fogler is sure she wouldn’t be working toward her master’s degree if it wasn’t for a faculty member she met a year ago.
But she never set foot in Kyle Ciani’s classroom. It was their discussions at sidewalk cafes and over coffee that gave the mother of three the confidence to apply to the history program.
“She told me I could do it,” Fogler said. “When I’d get frustrated at everybody in class being younger than me, and the fact that they didn’t have to juggle kids and their activities, she’d tell me I could do this in my own way.”
The two were matched through the Women’s Mentoring Network, a program celebrating its 10th anniversary. Nontraditional female students are paired with faculty/staff who provide support and encouragement. A nontraditional student is usually someone 25 years and older but could also be considered nontraditional if she’s married, employed, a veteran, has dependents or is paying her way through school.
The friendships that develop can extend way beyond graduation, said Michelle Schuline, University College specialist, who chairs the program. She’s well aware of the challenges of a nontraditional student since she finished her degree while working at Illinois State.
“I had a lot of people help me out so I know how important that support system is,” she said. “Having that cheerleader in your court, that on-campus support, someone to guide you to resources, is so important.”
There are about 1,900 nontraditional undergraduate students enrolled each semester. Graduate students are also welcome to join the network. Teri Farr-Behnke, undergraduate advisor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and Julie Ruby, a retired member of the Department of History, were the founders of the network.
Ciani, an associate professor of history, has been involved since the beginning, mentoring women ages 25 to 60. Although she’s on the core faculty of the Women’s and Gender Studies program, which sponsors the network, that’s not why she’s involved. It’s more personal.
She had an eight-year gap between her undergraduate and graduate degrees. That put her in her 30s when she went back to the classroom. She had a full-time job, took night classes and picked up a part-time job to pay tuition. And while working on her degree, she got married and started a family.
“Everyone thought I couldn’t do it because I was working full-time,” she said. “There were just a lot of factors against me. I don’t hold myself up as a model for a lot of things but I always tell my mentees what I did, and that this is possible.”
Women she mentors are sometimes struggling financially and she can relate. “I don’t come from a wealthy family. I had to put myself through school. I want them to know they can get through it too.”
And sometimes that means saying no to things, which she encourages.
Fogler is married and is in the thick of parenting with three active boys in grade school, middle school and high school. “She’s got a lot on her plate,” Ciani said. “She asked if she needed to join the History Club and I said no.”
She also tells her mentees that they don’t have to be perfect. “They think they have to get As in everything, that they have to prove themselves to their professors and their families. What I’ve tried to instill in them is it’s about learning and getting a C means you’ve learned a whole heck of a lot.”
How often the women meet depends on their needs and schedules. Sometimes it’s just once a month, and maybe an occasional connection through Facebook. The network has a Facebook page, Women’s Mentoring Network at Illinois State University. The program also offers opportunities for mentees to meet each other through an annual picnic, a November pizza social and a spring gathering.
The women are eligible for an annual Women’s Mentoring Network Book Award, which pays for textbooks. And there’s a quiet study space for them in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program resource room. The ISU Foundation accepts donations to the network and University College also assists in supporting the program.
Anyone can join at any time. For more information, contact Schuline at email@example.com or 438-2920.