VOLUME 12, NO. 1 JUNE 1998
WPI degree opens doors for older grad
Steven P. Lewis laughs when he remembers that his first-term grades from WPI were mailed to his mother -- at a retirement center in Connecticut. Lewis' mother stopped getting the grades after he reminded the folks in the Projects and Registrar's Office that he was old enough to be independent of her.
Then there was the time he visited the WPI library as a new student in the fall of 1995. "Professor, would you help us with calculus?" someone called to him from a table of students. Eventually, the other undergraduates learned that Lewis was one of them - even if he did already have two degrees, a wife, and two college-age children. And he grew comfortable being one of them, too, although, he says, "there were times when I'd be sitting in class, taking exams (like in Calculus IV), and I kind of wondered what the heck I was doing."
In December 1997, Lewis earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from WPI, graduating with distinction. That was 11 years after he received his M.B.A. from Northeastern University, and several more since he'd earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Over the years he built a strong career as a nutrition specialist, health care manager and consultant. But after some soul-searching, he decided to dive into a new future - with his eyes wide open. While the financial and other arrangements took some doing, Lewis credits his wife, who works at a software company, for her partnership in making the decision succeed. And he's grateful for the partial scholarship he received from WPI. "That's the practical end," he laughs. "You don't take note of the emotions of it all until your first classic thermodynamics class, when the roof starts to cave in."
"It made sense to prepare for my second career with all the energy I put into my first career.
It made sense to make that investment."
And there were a couple of other surprises, too. "I'm used to success," he says. "To come in and be humbled by the challenge at a school as demanding as WPI was something to get used to. Here I was on campus with some of the brightest kids I've ever met, and my prerequisite work was 8 to 10 years old in some cases. On the other hand," he notes, "as an older student you come into the program with a lot of tools some of the others don't have yet, such as good planning and time-management and organizational skills - attributes that came in handy on team projects."
About 75 students over the age of 25, some well over that age, attend WPI each year, according to Ann Garvin, director of academic advising. "I think Steve is interesting because he had a couple of degrees and a successful career before coming to us," she says. "He made a midlife switch, and it has been wonderful to work with him as he has worked out all the issues of returning to undergraduate work, competing with much younger students, and finding his way into the world of work."
Along with an up-to-date technical degree, older graduates can bring an employer valuable life experience, high energy and a forward-looking attitude, Lewis says. "I enjoyed health care management, but I always hung on to the dream of getting back into the sciences. I went into chemical engineering because of what I saw as emerging trends out there. And it made sense to prepare for my second career with all the energy I put into my first career. It made sense to make that investment."
Since graduation, Lewis has been working full time as an air quality engineer at Earth Tech in Concord, Mass. "Most of us grow up wanting to be someone important: the President, a firefighter, like dad, whatever," he explains. "In my first career, I thought I wanted to be somebody important. Now, what I really want is to do important things. So there is a difference you learn in the process of living."
Having gotten past the rigors of course work, papers and projects, Lewis is pleased about the doors WPI has opened for him. "The dream is reality. I actually get to do things that excite me every day. I've been very, very lucky. And I thought you only got three wishes in life!"
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