Eighteen years ago, Debbie Swierczek was raising two daughters and working full-time when she began taking classes at the University of Wyoming and Laramie County Community College.
Since then, Swierczek’s two daughters have graduated high school and earned degrees from UW.
Swierczek has meanwhile continued to work full-time while taking a couple classes each semester and trying to balance her family life.
Yesterday, the 57-year-old earned her own bachelor’s degree from UW and became a first-generation college graduate.
She is this year’s recipient of the Outstanding Balanced Academic Award, which is given out by UW to students who “balance strength in scholarly achievement with extracurricular achievement in a way that is unusually impressive.”
The past 18 years have been “extremely busy” she said. She’s stayed with classes through a layoff, the death of her husband’s parents and major milestones of her daughters’ lives. They’re now both married and Swierczek now has three grandchildren.
“It’s been a long journey but I was bound and determined to get my degree,” she said. “Most of the students — I could probably be their mother. Sometimes the instructors, as well.”
During her eighteen years of higher education, she’s switched degrees multiple times and earned an associate’s degree from LCCC in 2014.
Finally, she’s earned her degree yesterday in professional child development in the Department of Family & Consumer Sciences.
She started out in elementary education with the plan to become a kindergarten teacher, but switched her major to child development and now hopes to be a preschool teacher.
She just finished an internship at the UW Early Care and Education Center and she feels that having experience as a mother and grandmother helps augment the work.
“I bring a lot of qualities, because I know what these little kids are going through,” she said.
She’s lived in Laramie since she was married in 1979. Her husband was a physical education teacher at Laramie Middle School until he retired last year.
She worked until she and her husband decided in 1987 to have children. During the next decade, she was a stay-at-home mom.
“As they got into their activities and sports, my main goal was that I didn’t want to lose out of the family life with them,” she said. “I want to thank my family for all the support and encouragement they have given me through this educational journey. My husband has been the rock that kept me going, along with my two daughters. I don’t know what I would have done without their support.”
When she started taking classes in 2001, her daughters had gotten past middle school, but life didn’t really slow down.
“It’s a tough age for girls,” she said. “You’ve got to be there for them and make sure you listen while trying to maintain your sanity yourself. That’s why I just wanted to take one or two classes. I wanted to be there if they needed me.”
As she and her husband would travel back and forth to their daughters’ sporting events, Swierczek would often be in the passenger’s seat with a laptop or book, preparing for class.
From 2002 to 2017, she also worked full-time at the UW Outreach School, managing the records and registration unit.
The closure of the Outreach School in 2017 created a lot of stress. That was the closest Swierczek came to quitting classes, she said.
Instead she pressed forward, and continued to take classes after getting another full-time job at the UW Registrar’s Office as a degree analyst.
Swierczek hopes that earning her degree at 57-years-old will inspire others to also become non-traditional university graduates.
Being much older than other students, she said, can sometimes be awkward experience.
It also brings different obstacles, and older students need to acknowledge their limits and take classes slowly.
“Something you really need to keep up on is your technology, because it’s changing and it’s changing fast,” she said. “When you have to log-in and upload documents, and you’ve never had to do that before, it can be challenging and you just want to give up because you feel like the world around you is growing faster that you are. … It’s also hard as you’re getting older and you don’t retain information as well as you used to.”
But at the same time, being an older student has some advantages.
Swierczek feels more focused and determined than she was as a young adult.
“I think as you grow and mature, you’re better at studying,” she said. “I think I’m a better student now because I’m more determined.”
That determination and focus, Swierczek said, is only of one of the best assets that older students can have.
“You just have to know that you can do it,” she said.