Penn graduate students follow unique paths to higher education

Twenty-five percent of this year's incoming Vet School class consists of students over 25 years old

· October 8, 2012, 7:14 pm

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Looking at third-year veterinary student Melissa Ogg drink her 16-ounce coffee on the way to Hill Pavilion for her first morning class, it is hard to imagine that she ever donned a business suit instead of the more informal attire she wears on Penn’s campus every day.

Ogg, now 30, is one of Penn’s “non-traditional” graduate students — a term referring to students who do not pursue graduate degrees straight out of college — but she is far from an exception.

About 25 percent of this year’s incoming School of Veterinary Medicine class consists of students over the age of 25, according to the school’s admissions office.

At the Perelman School of Medicine, more than 60 percent of incoming students over the past two years were non-traditional. According to Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Gaye Sheffler, these mature students “provide great depth and diversity to the entering class.”

Penn is home to more than 10,000 graduate students, and each student who comes to Penn seems to follow a unique trajectory.

Ogg, for instance, made the switch into veterinary medicine after spending six years working at a consulting firm, where she designed and priced employee health care benefit plans for large companies.

“The business environment was really a terrible fit for me, and it bothered me that my work was so many steps removed from the actual employee who went to the doctor,” she said. “I started longing for a hands-on job that I would do even for free.”

Her motivation to pursue a career in animal care was a decision that required her to pursue a veterinary degree — and bear the financial burdens associated with it.

In other fields, obtaining a degree is not an explicit requirement but a decision rooted in personal goals that often need time to crystallize.

First-year Master of Fine Arts student Dan O’Neill has been on the fine arts path since he began college in 1997. After earning his bachelor’s degree in fine arts, he worked at various arts-related jobs — including running an art studio in Rome.

While his friends pursued graduate degrees in their early 20s, O’Neill felt that “what they were getting at school, I was getting through my many work experiences.”

Now, at 33, his has enrolled in a two-year program at Penn’s School of Design in order to “take everything I have already learned working for someone else and put it to use for myself.”

In contrast, for fourth-year Medical student Jon Edelson, the decision to commit to the lengthy, all-consuming process of earning a degree in medicine took more time to make.

“I didn’t envision anything in terms of a fixed long-term plan,” he said. “I’m not built that way.”

Edelson, now 31, was only able to decide to pursue a medical education after spending over a decade amassing many life experiences, including teaching and conducting research in India, Bosnia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Throughout this period, he realized he was repeatedly drawn to teaching, advocating for children and traveling. Finally he “saw that medicine was the way to most meaningfully satisfy my persistent impetus to be of service while continuing to have international opportunities as I move forward,” he said.

Finding their own way back to graduate school after redefining life priorities has resulted in newfound levels of satisfaction for Ogg and Edelson, who are both well into their respective programs.

Edelson said, “through medicine, I now have this privileged role of being welcomed into the lives of families and sharing in their happiest and saddest times, just as I had always been welcomed into people’s lives in my international experiences.”

For Ogg, making the career switch was not easy, and she does miss parts of what she left behind.

“My math’s gotten a little rusty, but if I had stayed in business I would have gone through the motions and never changed as a person,” she said. “Trudging through school makes you see that there will always be more to learn.”

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