Catholic studies classrooms are graced with nontraditional students more often than you might think. These students contribute life experience, a deep appreciation for education and a joy in sharing with younger generations that enriches the classroom for everyone.
Among Catholic studies’ recent graduates and current students are Kelley Warner ’15, a mother of three; Clyde “Rykk” Rykken, an “academic hummingbird” interested in learning a little bit of everything; and Ann Schiffer, another mom who is completing her degree one course at a time.
Falling in Love With the Truth
Over the past decade, Warner has made a dramatic, disciplined return both to the St. Thomas classroom and her Catholic faith. Though she attended St. Thomas in the 1980s and even met her husband here, she admitted that her faith was not foremost in her life. Her return began when she, alongside her husband and some friends, enrolled in the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute, which provides ongoing faith formation for Catholic adults of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.
“It was the best date night ever,” she said. “We’d go out afterward and talk about everything we were learning. But [after we finished], I was still hungry for more.”
So, she enrolled in a Catholic studies course: Search for Happiness. She said she felt a little “vulnerable” at first – she also had a daughter at St. Thomas – but her fellow students were so “respectful and welcoming. ... Each and every class was an amazing experience. I couldn’t get enough.”
She remembered being so moved in Dr. Ann Marie Klein’s Catholic Literary Tradition class that she would sometimes cry.
“She’d tell stories and I’d just be trying to hold it together half the time because they were so wonderful. And then she had us reading ‘Hamlet,’ and I remember thinking at first, ‘Well how boring is this going to be?’ And I loved it! [Dr. Klein] just has this way,” Warner said.
It wasn’t long before Warner made the commitment to complete a degree. She credited her studies with broadening her understanding of her Catholic faith and strengthening her vocabulary and personal fortitude to deal with challenging life issues – everything from illness to raising children.
“I love the Catholic faith so much,” Warner said, “[and] understanding that it’s so much more than the rules. ... It’s so broad when I think of what my primary job as a wife and a mother is – that I need to help these beautiful people in my life achieve holiness and get to heaven. And that can be messy.”
Since graduating, she remains connected to Catholic studies in other important ways and joined the Center for Catholic Studies Advisory Board last fall.
“It has taught me how to love with truth,” she said. “I don’t know that I would have been able to do that prior to [Catholic studies].”
An Academic Hummingbird
Not all nontraditional students seek degrees. Rykken began working in the custodial arts for St. Thomas in 1976, and though he retired in 2011, he still audits classes through the Selim Center for Lifelong Learning, which offers affordable course auditing options and educational programming for students age 40 and older.
After finishing a degree in ancient history at St. Olaf, he began graduate work in anthropology but eventually ended up working in academic publishing. He said he lost interest after a dozen or so years and looked for a completely new path. He took a job in janitorial services, “which is as about as far from academic work as you can get,” he said. But he loved the work and said he would do it all over again without hesitation.
“I don’t think I could have been a scholar,” said Rykken, who describes himself as an academic hummingbird. “I’m not systematic enough. I go for a little of this, a little of that.”
He is a self-proclaimed University of St. Thomas addict, and most of his courses have been in theology and Catholic studies. He is attracted to those courses that facilitate interdisciplinary learning.
“That’s one of the things I value about Catholic studies,” he said.
“It’s traditionally academic, not in any oppressive way, but in the sense that you can’t get by without thinking.”
Rykken has lost count of the number of courses he has audited but he still remembers every one. His first was Latin with Dr. Lorina Quartarone because he wanted to see if there were differences between ecclesiastical Latin and classical Latin.
Among his favorite professors is outgoing department chair and long-standing St. Thomas professor Dr. Robert Kennedy.
“He is extremely well-informed and also very clear headed,” said Rykken, who is Lutheran.
“From Dr. Kennedy you get the graced common sense that is built into the magisterium. You can disagree on some of the more trivial points but I was very impressed with [Catholic Social Thought and Culture], and very impressed with him,” Rykken said.
He recommended classes to the nontraditional student, “not only to broaden one’s perspectives, but also to be around the kids. They broadcast a certain energy and openness. Very often they have a moral generosity that they’re not even aware of. It’s uplifting, you can absorb it.
“They operate from the heart,” said Rykken, adding that he has been especially moved by Catholic studies students because they are “respectful and unusually well formed.”
Becoming Who She is Meant to Be, One Course At a Time
Schiffer’s first ambition was to become a bilingual administrator by majoring in business and Spanish. That plan was put off when she fell in love, got married and had six children.
Over the years, she worked in various administrative jobs, but as her children headed to college, the desire to return to the classroom blossomed. In 2005, at age 45, she took the brave leap and became a degree-seeking student, taking about one course per term. Twenty courses later and more than 10 years in, she still has a dozen or so classes to go before she completes her undergraduate degree in Catholic studies and Spanish. Even though she is on the “snail’s pace” schedule – she hopes to graduate with the Class of 2023 – she wouldn’t trade her education for anything.
Returning to college has not been without its occasional awkward moments, though. Her daughter was attending St. Thomas during some of her tenure and at one point, they accidentally crossed paths in a Spanish class.
“I show up the first day of class,” Schiffer said, “and there’s my daughter waiting outside the classroom door! ... I said ‘Oh my goodness, I didn’t realize you were in this class! What do you think, do you mind?’ and she said, ‘No.’ It was fine and actually it was kind of a sweet moment for us.” They waited a month or more to point out to the professor that they were related.
While Schiffer said she has found distinct advantages to completing her degree at a nontraditional age, she tries to be aware that she is in a “sacred space” where many students are away from home for the first time and are becoming adults.
“As an older person,” she said, “I have a different lens that I’m viewing everything through, and so when topics come up I’m mindful of the fact that the professor is talking to primarily young people ... but when there is something that I can add to the discussion because of my experience, sometimes that’s helpful, I think.”
Schiffer said she chose Catholic studies partially because she is a nontraditional student and wanted something that was meaningful to her life. In that regard, she said she thinks she has become a better wife, mother, friend and employee.
“I find myself better able to love because of what I have learned about love and what that is. I’m better able to manage life because of what I have learned about virtue and what that is,” Schiffer said.
She has not been without her moments of fatigue and doubt. Taking a degree one course at a time requires a special kind of tenacity and sacrifice. At one point she considered giving up her pursuit of a degree because she felt guilty about the time it was taking away from friends and family. But her spiritual director helped to change her mind.
“He said, ‘Does it make you happy? Are you feeling fulfilled?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I am. I love it,’” Schiffer said. “And he said, ‘OK, this is something making you more of who God made you to be. Give yourself permission.’ I needed to hear that along the way when I felt tugged at by other responsibilities and friendships.” She encouraged anyone thinking about going back to school or simply taking a course here and there. “Don’t be afraid,” Schiffer said. “There is no time like the present. Make time for it because it is so enriching. ... As a human being I have become a better person.”
Interested in taking your first Catholic studies course or returning back to class as an alum?
Visit stthomas.edu/catholicstudies/undergraduate/courses to view a list of courses. To learn more about taking a Catholic studies course through the Selim Center, or about nondegreeseeking application requirements and course-auditing opportunities, contact Ann Serdar, coordinator, Department of Catholic Studies, at (651) 962-5703 or firstname.lastname@example.org.