Anthony Arnone & Anna Loria
Completion Program Helps Former Students Finish Their Degrees
One of the few of its kind in the country, the College's completion program has helped graduate more than 400 students who left college before degree completion.
SUNY Brockport Completion Specialist Nathan Hendrickson earned a college degree as a 28-year-old parent.
"I’ve had the experience of being academically dismissed from college and feeling that I was a jack of all trades, but a master of none," said Hendrickson. "I can really empathize with students who say they want to finish their degree."
After playing hockey at the junior elite level, multiple concussions prevented Hendrickson from continuing his athletic career. So, he became a chef, then worked at the Monroe County Jail while studying at Monroe Community College, then pursued an organizational management degree to work in Human Resources.
In an unexpected career turn influenced by a market crash right before he graduated, Hendrickson started working as the officer in charge of campus safety at Nazareth College.
"I began working with students in crises, and I found that I absolutely loved working with college students," said Hendrickson. "My background really tied in well with what many students were experiencing."
Today, Hendrickson continues to execute his passion for supporting college students as the head of the College's completion program — which facilitates the graduation of students who left the College and other schools prior to degree completion. He and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Eileen Daniel, who started the program in 2014 before Hendrickson was hired to manage it full time a year later, have collectively helped more than 400 former students return to Brockport to complete their degrees.
Hendrickson provides one-on-one guidance to nearly 60 students each semester. In an effort to facilitate paths toward graduation, he maps out individualized plans of study specifically tailored to each student.
The Port met with six of them to hear their stories:
Diane Cook met her biological sister 30 years before she knew they were related — a coincidence that would inspire her to go back to school.
Cook started her college journey studying speech language pathology at Nazareth College, but an uneasiness about her degree led her to drop out.
“I felt so overwhelmed when I was 18, which led me to falling short,” Cook said. “I believe not getting my degree affected the rest of my life.”
Cook took another chance at higher education and attended Bryant and Stratton College in the early 1980s, where she earned an associate's degree in secretarial science.
Nearly three years ago, Cook’s path would take another turn, landing her on Good Morning America.
During that time, Cook’s adoptive father passed, which sparked her interest in her family’s history. Cook looked into her biological roots and found Karen Cometa-Zempel — an unknown older sister.
Cook instantly recognized the name. Her older sister was her professor more than 30 years ago at Bryant and Stratton College.
“I believe in destiny. All of our choices happen to us for a reason,” Cook said. “If I didn’t initially drop out, I wouldn’t have crossed paths with my sister.”
Her sister inspired her to go back to school and finish her undergraduate degree. She applied to Brockport and was put in touch with Hendrickson, who could help her determine how to maximize her existing college credits.
Together, they determined a plan for her to earn a bachelor’s degree in English in 2020.
“Education has always been important to me,” Cook said. “I think education is critical in today’s world, and I am determined to finish this time around.”
Daniel Collins thought he graduated from the College in 1986 with a degree in criminal justice. He even walked the stage.
But after landing a job on Wall Street as a clerk, Collins realized two things: 1) He was a few credits short from degree completion, and 2) He didn’t want to work as a clerk.
“I was completely naïve and didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up,” he remembered.
Over the course of two years, Collins took examinations to become a securities agent, worked for a brokerage firm, and eventually found his niche as a financial advisor in New York City and, ultimately, Dallas, TX.
“At that point, I started to want to finish my degree. I was hoping to complete whatever I was missing at a local community college,” he said. As a father and businessperson, he struggled to find time to research which courses he would need to take to complete his degree. So, he put the plan on the backburner.
By 2017, earning a degree meant a lot more to Collins than ever before. His mother was growing older, and he wanted her to know he finished his education, just like his three sisters.
After contacting the College, he didn’t hear back right away. That’s because Hendrickson was delving into what turned out to be an odd scenario.
“We found that a class he took was supposed to be coded as a major requirement, rather than an elective, which was more likely to occur in the past because of the all-paper system," said Hendrickson. "Those do happen from time to time. When you can tell someone that it was figured out, it's a huge deal."
In that instant, Collins became a 2018 grad.
“I'm not going to lie. I got a little emotional, because it wasn't for me at this point; it was for my mom. All I asked was for the diploma to be mailed to her home," he said. "I had always left the college education area blank on my job applications. Now knowing that I’m a graduate, I have a good sense of pride.”
Theresa Wright wanted to be a teacher — until she had a change of heart four years and two colleges later.
She took a break from higher education to pursue a full-time position at a credit union.
“I wanted to go back to school at a time that was right for me, when I could be more serious than I was right out of high school,” said Wright.
Fast forward to 2017. All in the same week, Wright graduated with her associate’s degree, closed on her first home, and set her sights on the next big step: a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
“I looked at different schools, and Brockport was the most feasible for me,” she said.
Soon after enrolling, getting married prompted Wright to take her second leave of absence. This time, Hendrickson stepped in to help make sure it was her last. He even identified a few required courses from which her work experience exempted her, which she wouldn’t have otherwise known.
“I’m an assistant branch manager, so I can stand out as an applicant with my work experience, but if I don’t have that degree, it’s going to be very hard for me to do anything further,” explained Wright, who’s on track to graduate in May 2020. Her ultimate goal? To be an analyst — much inspired by what she considers the most challenging, yet most rewarding, course she’s ever taken: Management Information Systems.
“Nathan feels like my own personal advisor who’s invested in seeing me graduate. It’s nice to feel that support,” said Wright. “That’s not something I’ve had in the past.”
"I try to take the initiative to stay engaged with each student after they graduate," said Hendrickson. "If their goal was to go to grad school, how are they making it through? Did they get that promotion? That raise? How’s the family doing now that they have more time? It's exciting to watch their lives change just from a degree."
While attempting to finish her bachelor’s degree from the College in 2001, Angela Sywulski's full-time employer started to fail, and she was laid off.
Sywulski found a new full-time job at Paychex, but her commute to Brockport was longer, and she couldn’t continue pursuing her degree.
“I have been working with Paychex for 17 years now, and I love it,” Sywulski said. “But I have always been embarrassed that I didn’t finish school, something I always wanted to do.”
In May of 2017 the Democrat and Chronicle ran a story about a student returning to Brockport after more than 30 years. It caught her eye, and she contacted Hendrickson.
“He (Hendrickson) helped me figure out what classes I needed and even went the extra length to find online options to fit my schedule,” she said.
Sywulski is taking one online class a semester and is expected to graduate with her bachelor’s degree in business administration by 2020.
Sywulski's goal is to prove to herself that she can do this.
“I have been in the business world for 20 years and still feel like I am learning something in class,” she said.
Casey Carlton was a sport management major when he attended Brockport in 1980. When he was turned down for an internship that he needed to graduate, he left without finishing his degree.
Carlton eventually moved to New York City and worked in the stock market for 11 years until 9/11. The aftermath led to thousands of layoffs — including Carlton.
“I was forced to move back to California, but I always wanted to move back,” Carlton said. “Even after things started to get better, the job market remained competitive and I couldn’t get a job in New York without a degree.”
In 2018, Carlton decided he was ready to do whatever it would take to make the move.
He emailed Hendrickson, who looked into his college transcript. Hendrickson was surprised to find out Carlton already had enough credits to receive a liberal arts degree.
Carlton then wrote a letter to President Heidi Macpherson, acknowledging Hendrickson for all he did.
“I always felt guilty about all those times my mother mailed me $40 to help me get through college,” Carlton said. “Now, I can tell her it all paid off.”
Even since childhood, Judy Williams knew she wanted to work in the legal field.
In 2006, Williams enrolled at Brockport after graduating from Monroe Community College. She was balancing her studies, family, and a job as a paralegal for about four years before she had to put college on hold.
After sorting through those family issues, Williams stepped into the United States Armed Forces.
For six years, she worked at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station where she was part of an air refueling squadron, all while she maintained a job.
Williams was on orders to Florida when she had an epiphany.
“I needed to go to law school,” Williams said. “I eventually reached out to Nate Hendrickson in hopes of completing my bachelor’s degree at Brockport.”
Hendrickson helped Williams identify what credits she still needed — only six.
She finished her classes three weeks later and graduated in May 2018.
“Nate is a great person who is willing to do so much for others,” Williams said. “That position was made for him.”
Williams attended her first class at Cooley Law School this past September. One day, she hopes to start her own practice, but for now, she will continue her education.
"Helping students overcome any hurdle that’s stopping them is the rewarding piece," said Hendrickson.