Back to school

Peirce Col­lege stu­dent Christine Bergmark con­sults with school ad­visers. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

— With guid­ance from Gradu­ate! Phil­adelphia, stu­dents like Christine Bergmark are tak­ing their seats in col­lege classrooms.


Park­wood’s Christine Bergmark has an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree in ac­count­ing from Peirce Col­lege and worked for about two dec­ades in the bank­ing in­dustry.

Last May, she was laid off from a Bala Cyn­wyd bank. Soon after, she was look­ing for work.

One day, she vis­ited the Pennsylvania Ca­reer­Link of­fice in the shop­ping cen­ter at Academy and Red Li­on roads. There, she learned of a non-profit or­gan­iz­a­tion called Gradu­ate! Phil­adelphia.

The mis­sion of the or­gan­iz­a­tion, which formed in 2005, is to in­crease the num­ber of col­lege gradu­ates in the Phil­adelphia re­gion, with a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on adults, many of whom star­ted col­lege but nev­er fin­ished.

In the Phil­adelphia met­ro­pol­it­an area, more than 320,000 adults ages 24 to 60 star­ted but nev­er com­pleted a col­lege de­gree.

More than 3,200 so-called “Comeback­ers” are re­ceiv­ing on­go­ing in­di­vidu­al sup­port from a Gradu­ate! ad­viser, and they have a 94-per­cent re­ten­tion rate once back in col­lege.

Bergmark, a mar­ried moth­er of four who is 39 “for a few more months,” en­rolled at Peirce Col­lege last Oc­to­ber after con­sulta­tion with Gradu­ate! Phil­adelphia.

The new stu­dent plans to com­plete her bach­el­or’s de­gree in ac­count­ing. So far, she’s off to a good start. She has a 4.0 grade point av­er­age.


“It’s im­port­ant to work hard,” she said of her per­fect grades. “It’s a good ex­ample for my kids. I ex­pect them to get As.”

Bergmark cred­its Gradu­ate! Phil­adelphia man­ager Sarah Byker James with help­ing her in the de­cision-mak­ing pro­cess.

“She was very help­ful and very pos­it­ive, and had a lot of in­form­a­tion,” she said. “She had an­swers to the ques­tions I had.”

Gradu­ate! Phil­adelphia is in­vit­ing the pub­lic to at­tend Re­turn­ing to Learn­ing: A Free Col­lege Fair for Adults on Tues­day, April 17 from 3 to 7 p.m., at Fath­er Judge High School.

The fair will be offered in part­ner­ship with Ca­reer­Link, Cath­ol­ic So­cial Ser­vices, Phil­ly­Goes2­Col­lege and Cla­ri­fi (formerly Con­sumer Cred­it Coun­sel­ing Ser­vice of Delaware Val­ley).

There will be in­form­a­tion on fin­an­cial aid; col­lege cred­it for life ex­per­i­ence; ac­cel­er­ated, even­ing, week­end, on­line and hy­brid courses; how to bal­ance work, stud­ies, fam­ily and oth­er re­spons­ib­il­it­ies; and time and money man­age­ment.

The fol­low­ing schools will have rep­res­ent­at­ives at the fair: Com­munity Col­lege of Phil­adelphia; Chest­nut Hill Col­lege; Cheyney Uni­versity; Cen­ter for Urb­an Theo­lo­gic­al Stud­ies; Drexel; East Strouds­burg; I-Lead/Har­cum Col­lege; Peirce Col­lege; Penn State; Phil­adelphia Uni­versity; Rose­mont Col­lege; Rut­gers-Cam­den; Spring­field Col­lege; and Temple.

“We help people go­ing back to school con­sider their op­tions,” Byker James said. “It’s a nice, low-pres­sure op­por­tun­ity to shop around and to stop and talk to col­lege rep­res­ent­at­ives.”


Some adults find that fam­ily and friends ques­tion why they’d want to re­turn to school.

“Go­ing back to school as an adult can be in­tim­id­at­ing, and we’re there to be that pos­it­ive sup­port,” Byker James said.

Gradu­ate! Phil­adelphia is largely fun­ded by the city, found­a­tions and the United Way of South­east­ern Pennsylvania.

Ad­visers of­fer in­di­vidu­al­ized ad­vice on fil­ing for fin­an­cial aid, max­im­iz­ing cred­it trans­fer and try­ing to have col­lege ap­plic­a­tion fees waived. The or­gan­iz­a­tion provides classes and work­shops to re­fresh study skills, man­age stress and bal­ance work.

“It can be a night­mare for adults,” Byker James said. “We don’t want to just get people in col­lege, we want them to have the tools to suc­ceed.”

Bergmark said it was not a night­mare for her, thanks to the Gradu­ate! Phil­adelphia team, which has its main of­fice and col­lege ac­cess cen­ter at two loc­a­tions in Cen­ter City.

A couple of times a month, the or­gan­iz­a­tion also has hours at Ca­reer­Link of­fices and the Cath­ol­ic So­cial Ser­vices loc­a­tion on Jack­son Street in Holmes­burg.

A large per­cent­age of re­turn­ing stu­dents are choos­ing to study in fields with job growth. Those in­clude health care and in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy.

The Gradu­ate! Phil­adelphia staff tells pro­spect­ive stu­dents that some em­ploy­ers use a four-year de­gree as a “sort­ing mech­an­ism,” giv­ing grads a bet­ter chance to land a job.


In gen­er­al, the staff be­lieves a re­turn to school can only help people look­ing for a pro­mo­tion, ca­reer change or em­ploy­ment of any kind.

“It’s a pretty smart op­tion in a job mar­ket like this,” said ad­viser Kris Scott.

A 1990 Little Flower High School gradu­ate, Bergmark at­ten­ded the Uni­versity of Pitt­s­burgh for one semester be­fore re­turn­ing home and tak­ing a job at the old CoreSt­ates bank. She earned an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree from Peirce in 1994 with a 4.0 GPA.

For 14 years, un­til be­ing dis­placed, she worked at the Fed­er­al Re­serve Bank build­ing near In­de­pend­ence Mall. While there, she en­rolled in an on-site de­gree pro­gram with Phil­adelphia Uni­versity. She was able to trans­fer the 18 cred­its she earned to Peirce.

At Peirce, she earned a schol­ar­ship based on grades, an in­ter­view and an es­say. She stud­ies on­line, rather than in a classroom, giv­ing her more flex­ib­il­ity as a wife and moth­er and at her part-time job at Tar­get.

“I en­joy the con­veni­ence,” she said.

Bergmark ex­pects to gradu­ate in Decem­ber 2013, giv­ing her a boost in her job search in the ac­count­ing in­dustry. She might even­tu­ally pur­sue a cer­ti­fied pub­lic ac­count­ing de­gree.

“A lot of po­s­i­tions re­quire a four-year de­gree,” she said. “They want that piece of pa­per.” ••



Free fair facts …

Gradu­ate! Phil­adelphia will hold Re­turn­ing to Learn­ing: A Free Col­lege Fair for Adults on Tues­day, April 17, from 3 to 7 p.m., at Fath­er Judge High School, at 3301 Solly Ave.

For more in­form­a­tion on the fair or the or­gan­iz­a­tion, call 215-574-1341, op­tion 2; vis­it www.gradu­ate­phil­; or check out the Gradu­ate! Phil­adelphia page on Face­book.

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