Written by Michael Rouleau
After 15 years in the restaurant business, Dawn Lancaster, a 36-year-old from Groton, figured her lifelong career would be in the hospitality field. That was until 2011, when her preteen daughter started resisting the idea of going to college. “You didn’t go to college,” the young girl would say. “Why do I have to go?”
That year, Dawn enrolled at Three Rivers Community College, partly with the aspiration of entering upper-level management in restaurants, but mostly because she had something to prove back home. “I had to eliminate that whole conversation,” she said. “How could I tell her that she has to go to college if I didn’t?”
Dawn has since obtained an associate’s degree, and is now a student at Eastern Connecticut State University with an entirely new career path in mind. Now she aspires for a career in non-profit management, and will be one big step closer in 2018 when she graduates with a Bachelor of General Studies (BGS) degree from Eastern — with a concentration in business administration and a minor in accounting.
For the past two years, Dawn has worked with Covenant Shelter, a homeless shelter in New London. “I had no idea how much administration actually exists in non-profit organizations,” she said with excitement. “I also realized how much I love this work!”
But Dawn hasn’t left the restaurant business completely. She still bartends part time in Mystic, on top of her day job with Covenant Shelter, obligations as a mother, and of course, her workload as an Eastern student. “I haven’t slept in years,” she joked.
At least her academic responsibilities are eased thanks to Eastern’s satellite campus in Groton — located just a few minutes from her home — and features of the BGS program that are meant to accommodate busy nontraditional students.
“Most of my classmates have full-time day jobs and kids,” she said. “All my classes are in the evening. You can work your workday, get home, settle your family and then go to class without having to race from the office.”
Dawn will be able to graduate in only four semester (or two years). How so soon? In addition to expedited, half-semester classes (seven weeks each), students enrolled in the BGS program can earn college credit for past work experience through Eastern’s Reverse Internship and Professional Experience Portfolio (PEP) programs. She’ll be able to obtain additional college credit — saving more time and money — by taking DSST exams, which allow her to skip certain courses if she can demonstrate proficient knowledge in a given subject.
Convenience and speed aren’t the only things Dawn appreciates. “I feel like I’m getting a quality education in a way that is more relatable to me,” she said. “The professors at the Groton site realize we already have a lot of experience. We’re not 18 or 21 years old. Professors teach from a different angle.
“I was prepared to sit in class with someone lecturing me about things I already know,” she admitted. “I was prepared to sit there and try to keep my eyes open, but I’m excited to go to class! We do a lot of roundtable discussions. Someone will bring up a situation and we’ll discuss it as the professor brings their knowledge and expertise to the table.”
Class sizes are small with approximately 20 students, and Dawn appreciates her classmates’ range of ages and experience. “I’m right in the middle,” she said. “Some students are in their 20s, others are in their 40s and 50s. I like all the perspectives; everyone brings a different view to the table.”
Speaking to her professionalism, she added, “I’ve improved over the past few months because of tidbits picked up here and there.” Through class discussion and assignments, she finds herself reflecting on her own management styles and interactions with coworkers. “If I was to become my boss tomorrow, I would be better at it than if I started six months ago.”
When Dawn finishes her BGS, she’d like to pursue a master’s degree in non-profit management, or maybe a master’s degree at Eastern in organizational management.