Credit for prior learning helped Loyce Shelley see herself in a new way — and complete her degree.
DeAundre Nelson was 3 years old when he fell off a seesaw at daycare and hit his head on concrete. The seizures began six months later — intermittent electrical disturbances in his brain that led his limbs to jerk uncontrollably and his family to race him to the emergency room.
At 9, when DeAundre suffered a seizure that lasted more than six hours, doctors induced a coma to calm his brain and body. They warned his parents he could emerge from the coma in a vegetative state and likely would need brain surgery. Instead, when the boy awoke three days later, “he was like his normal self,” said his mother, Loyce Shelley.
“From that day forward, my son never had any more seizures,” recalled Shelley, who had quit her job to care for her son full time. “But he still had learning difficulties. I started being really involved with the school because it connected me to the administration, gave me a personal relationship with his teacher, and increased the village of people who were looking out for my son.”
With DeAundre on the road to recovery, Shelley launched her own event-planning business. She refined her approach event by event, learning how to budget, manage vendors, communicate through challenges, and market her business. And once her son had graduated from high school and was studying at the University of Memphis, she taught him how to advocate for himself as she once had.
That’s when Shelley was awakened to the idea that her personal journey through adulthood — with lessons learned along the way about championing a disabled child and managing hundreds of successful weddings and other events — could buoy her own path toward a college degree.
At a University of Memphis breakfast for parents, Shelley heard then-Provost Karen Weddle-West describe how the institution embraces credit for prior learning, which creates an avenue for returning students to demonstrate the skills and knowledge they learned outside the classroom and possibly earn college credit for it.
“When I heard her say this, a light bulb went off for me,” Shelley said. “I kind of looked around the room and wondered, ‘Am I the only one who hasn’t graduated?’ Because it seemed as though she was talking directly to me.”
For adult learners returning to college, research from CAEL and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education shows, credit for prior learning saves them time and money toward earning a degree. Those who earn it are 17 percent more likely to graduate. And institutions that offer this type of college credit benefit because it has a powerful influence on a student’s choice of school — and those who earn it are more likely to enroll in more credits.
— Loyce Shelley, University of Memphis student who earned college credit toward her degree through the university’s credit through prior learning program
Research also points to how credit for prior learning can override the nagging feelings of self-doubt that can cripple adult learners thinking about pursuing a college degree. CPL can empower students by validating them as learners.
Those feelings of validation were part of Shelley’s experience as she took the first steps toward earning credit for learning she already had done outside the college classroom.“Having to go through the experience and really putting my thoughts and my experiences onto paper, it really made me appreciate what I had done,” Shelley said. “It honestly made me really see myself in a different way.”
Shelley had started down a postsecondary education path more than 20 years earlier, when she had attended business school and then the University of Memphis. But even during her brief time at the four-year institution, Shelley knew she wouldn’t be able to stay long enough to earn a degree.
“My twin sister, Joyce, and I knew coming in that our family could not afford for us to continue to be in school — it was twice the cost because there were two of us,” Shelley said. “We had never known anything about college, so therefore we weren’t prepared financially to come.”
After just one semester, the sisters moved on — to jobs, marriage, motherhood.The process of putting together a credit for prior learning portfolio was “daunting,” Shelley said. When she first learned of the program at the University of Memphis, she envisioned that she might simply have to write a letter describing all she had done in her professional career.
Instead, it was a much more rigorous process. Shelley’s portfolio involved a collection of 30 research papers detailing her history in managing large-scale projects as an event planner and advocating for resources for her son and for the other families of disabled children who turned to her for guidance.
Shelley worked with a campus academic advisor, Karen Thurmond, who helped guide her through opportunities to use her work experiences to demonstrate her learning and earn college credit.
“Ms. Thurmond had to tell me, ‘Loyce, you have a lot to offer. You’ve done a lot,’” Shelley said. “She was the one that really made me start seeing myself in a different way, because until then I was just an event planner/mom. I didn’t know that I had all of this in me because it was just a part of who I was.”
— Tracy Robinson, University of Memphis director of innovative academic initiatives
University of Memphis faculty who reviewed her portfolio of prior learning awarded Shelley 30 college credits for her work — the maximum allowed through the university’s program. The university is a longtime member of CAEL, which worked with administrators to establish the institution’s credit for prior learning program.
Between the credits she had completed as a young woman and her devotion to her credit for prior learning portfolio, Shelley needed only 42 credits from the University of Memphis to complete her degree.
“When someone already has the knowledge base, the competency, there’s no reason for them to have to spend money and time to demonstrate that in front of an instructor when they can have an alternative method of demonstrating that level of competence,” said Richard Irwin, the executive dean of global and academic innovation at the University of Memphis and a longtime advocate for improving the university’s credit for prior learning offerings. “It just seems to be fair, just, and right.”
Shelley will earn her bachelor’s degree in May 2022. And her journey has inspired the woman who began the journey with her: Her sister, Joyce Brandon, enrolled at the University of Memphis in spring 2022 and also is preparing a credit for prior learning portfolio.
The completed degrees will likely change the trajectory of their family’s legacy, said Tracy Robinson, the university’s director of innovative academic initiatives.
“Once they graduate, it changes their projection with their career, with their family,” Robinson said. “It changes the way that their children look at college completion. Research tells us that a college-educated parent is more likely to have a college-educated child.”
A college-educated parent? Shelley likes the sound of that.
“My sons are going to see their mother graduate,” Shelley said. “My husband, my oldest son — they have degrees. My youngest son is a sophomore at the University of Memphis. But to see me, Mom, the only one who didn’t have anything like that, obtain a degree, is going to be powerful.”
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