Leaders & Innovators: Rita Serotkin, associate VP/dean, Center for Continuing Education and Summer School, Guilford College
Rita Serotkin, who has worked in adult higher education for much of her adult life, became an adult learner in 2001 at the age of 54 when she decided to finally pursue her doctoral degree. She had always wanted to, but there was always a reason to put it off.
“The truth of it is that I was scared — just absolutely terrified. ‘A doctorate? Me? Am I smart enough?’ These are the things that ran through my head,” she said. “It had been 30 years since I’d gotten my master's, so I thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t remember how to write a term paper, do research with footnotes, and all that stuff.’”
Then, while working at Widener University, where part of her job at the time was advising students in doctoral programs, a student she had recruited and with whom she had become friends came into her office and asked her when she was going to get started on her doctorate.
“She spit back right at me all the things I had said to her,” Serotkin said. “She was my age, and she convinced me that if she could do it I could too, which was what I always told prospective students.”
Now, Serotkin, who serves as the associate vice president and dean of Guilford College’s Center for Continuing Education and Summer School, tells prospective and current students that she knows exactly how terrified they feel, because she felt that way not so long ago. She also makes sure they know that her job is to remove as many obstacles as possible to help them succeed.
And she ensures adult learners at the institution have access to the kinds of support services they need. For example, a learning commons offers free tutoring and workshops on topics such as developing study and test-taking skills. Credit-bearing classes such as Guilford’s Adult Transitions, Gateways to Success, and Introduction to Computers addresses adult learners’ personal insecurities and academic deficiencies.
An adult student government ensures that older learners have access to the kinds of opportunities that appeal to them, such as help finding better jobs, managing their time, and balancing competing responsibilities.
And a peer mentoring program matches new adult learners with current mature students who have achieved academic success. Mentors and mentees are matched based on their majors and interests. With some of the money from a $100,000 grant from the Council of Independent Colleges and Walmart, she grew the mentoring program to about 10 times its size. And each semester, it continues to grow because students who benefitted as mentees want to pay it forward by mentoring future students.
Serotkin has also developed new undergraduate programs since arriving at Guilford in 2006, convinced the faculty to offer existing programs at night, and worked with leaders at other area institutions to develop a referral center that will be located in downtown Greensboro, where people will be able to go to talk to advisors about the best institution and program based on their needs, career interests and prior college experiences.
Not everything is rosy. The state of North Carolina recently did away with a program that gave in-state students attending private institutions some scholarship money. That has made Guilford less accessible to many adults. And as many institutions herd adult learners into online programs because they’re less costly to run than face-based ones, adult enrollments have suffered. Plus, some students now arriving at Guilford come with negative experiences in online programs.
“Running an adult degree program is difficult, no matter where you are, because most are run on a shoestring budget,” she said. “But distance learning isn’t right for every adult learner. Many aren’t technologically savvy or have the independent learning skills needed to succeed in online programs. Unfortunately, distance education is how a lot of institutions are managing to cut costs.”
Serotkin tells those students that the negative experiences they’ve had are in the past, and reiterates that she’s there to ensure they have whatever supports they need to succeed.
“Yes, the bottom line is what everyone is looking at with adult-serving programs, but you can’t lose sight of the students,” she said.
For more information, you may contact Rita Serotkin at firstname.lastname@example.org.