Returning to Finish College

By Barbara Melendez


TAMPA, Fla. (May 5, 2010) – There are many ways to describe the feelings: incomplete, unfinished, an emptiness – they come from starting but not finishing the work to earn a college degree. But there is an antidote – in the form of help for adult students returning to college. The people who have used the Osher Reentry Scholarship Program to complete college are happy to describe their positive new feelings once they get started again and make it to graduation: pride, fulfillment, and more. They provide powerful evidence that clearing space for a return to college is manageable with a little guidance and help despite life’s everyday concerns – the jobs, family, bills and responsibilities that add up to seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  So far, 25 students have been served by the Osher Reentry Scholarship at USF since 2008.


On May 8, Kelly Budnick – from the first set of Osher Reentry Scholarship recipients – graduates with a sense of relief and pride. She attended a community college right after high school but didn’t have a plan or the focus to make the most of the experience.


“It was like an extension of high school – I never went to class, I lived at home, I didn’t have any bills, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she said. “So I amassed a great amount of credits that equaled no degree. I decided I was tired of school and went to work as a pediatric dental assistant.”


Five years later, tired of living paycheck to paycheck, she decided it was time to get her degree and improve her chances of qualifying for a better-paying job. She chose to major in elementary education. Within 25 to 30 credits of being able to graduate, Budnick suddenly found herself without the money to pay for college.


“I had exceeded the number of credits you could have in order to qualify for financial aid, including loans and I found out as classes had started,” she said. “It was a terrible shock.”


An ad in the USF student newspaper, The Oracle, came to her attention in the nick of time.


“As an Osher Scholar I was afforded the opportunity to complete my degree,” she said. “I am so happy that I had a way to pay for college and actually finish. The office that handles the scholarship is very helpful and always willing to help us.”


A couple of original Osher Scholars from last year had similar experiences. One is Matthew Dodd, who majored in environmental science and policy and graduated from the Tampa campus last fall. Another is Sherri Rodriguez, a psychology major, a fall 2009 graduate of USF Polytechnic in Lakeland, who is now contemplating future master’s and doctoral degrees. In both cases, they went from being convinced it was not possible all the way to proving quite the contrary.


A trip to USF’s bookstore reignited Dodd’s interest in college. On that fateful day he looked for and found a book he couldn’t find anywhere else.


“I got the book and came out and it was such a special feeling to be on campus again, near the Marshall Center, near the dorms I used to live in eight or nine years before,” he said. “It was almost magical the way people were coming and going, getting their education, preparing themselves for the real world. I very much wanted to be a part of that again.”


After applying and being accepted, Dodd found out about the Osher Scholarship one day flipping through The Oracle, like Budnick.


“I saw an ad. It didn’t seem real at first. It was strange that they were giving scholarships to adult learners who had a gap in their education greater than five years,” he said.


Dodd made good use of the program’s services, in particular his advisor.


“Before I even took a class the second time around, I saw an advisor and I got my courses all laid out for me,” he said. “And I saw her regularly before the beginning of every semester to help guide me along with which courses I was supposed to take.  It was a very good program.”


And he offers advice students at any stage should heed, the kind born of maturity gained from life.


“Always go to class. That’s the number one thing. If you don’t go, it’s not even worth your time. Definitely study hard. It’s a simple formula, but the discipline makes it less difficult. If you can discipline yourself, that’s what separates the successes from the failures,” he said. 


As a substitute teacher with an associate’s degree, Rodriguez was not satisfied.


“I felt I hadn’t arrived. I was half a person,” she said. “I had my AA degree, but I didn’t really finish. So many certified teachers came in to apply for the job and I was really lucky that I had it for as long as I did. But, I was always the ‘substitute.’ I wanted more than that. I wanted to have that degree. I wanted to know that I did everything else all the other teachers did.”


Osher came through at the right moment.


“With the economy, my husband lost his job, he was laid off. It was a real possibility that I would not return to college. So when I got the scholarship, it was amazing,” she said.


Rodriguez also credits her advisor with helping her make it through. 


“She (Dr. Jackie Reece) was a huge help when I switched from elementary education to psychology,” Rodriguez said. “She made sure the classes would transfer over before I did anything that would prolong (completion of) my degree. She was very encouraging when I thought I couldn’t do it. And I cried in her office and said, ‘I can’t do it.’ She held my hand and said you can get through it. And I did!”


Dodd pointed out, “I think for the percentage of people who drop out of college, one of the hardest things they’ll ever do is come back. But that’s what makes it so valuable. It’ll make your life so fulfilling because you’ll be doing something you really care about.”


And some people go from incomplete to complete and then urged to go further.


“Part of me still feels, ‘well now I have my bachelor’s, I’m still waiting to arrive,’ so to speak,” Rodriguez says. “But I know I’m on that journey. And every day I get a little closer.”


The Osher program’s staff couldn’t be happier.


“We at the University of South Florida are pleased to partner with the Bernard Osher Foundation to not only offer adult students access to a quality education but also to help them succeed in their long-term educational pursuits,” said Metro Initiatives Senior Director Lagretta Lenker, 


For more information about the Osher Reentry Scholarship Program visit or call 1 888-USF4YOU (873-4968).


About the Osher Reentry Scholarship program at USF

The Osher Reentry Scholarship program provides scholarship grants to assist non-traditional, reentry students with tuition expenses. Reentry students are defined  as individuals who have experienced a cumulative gap in their education of five or more years and wish to resume their undergraduate university studies to complete their first baccalaureate degree. 


The Bernard Osher Foundation of San Francisco was founded in 1977 by California businessman Bernard Osher.  Among other foundation initiatives, the Osher Reentry Scholarship Program provides tuition support for students returning to four-year institutions after a significant break in the studies. Over 70 universities in 30 states and the District of Columbia participate in this program. 




The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.