When they put the papers in front of her, Christine Halvorsen had no choice but to sign them. Decisions had been made, changes were afoot, and she was not in a position to fight it. But as she put pen to paper and, letter by letter, inked her name on the line, she knew what it meant.
She was signing her career away.
Halvorsen’s employer was downsizing and outsourcing. Her position in customer service and sales support now required a bachelor’s degree, and she did not fulfill this base requirement for the job.
“I was terrified,” she says. “Our building used to be so full you couldn’t find a parking spot. Then they closed a department. When I signed that job description, I knew they could terminate me for not fulfilling that requirement.”
Halvorsen decided to take control of her own destiny, rather than having it dictated. And family support and a speech from Lorain County Community College President Marcia Ballinger, Ph.D., inspired her to turn that rewritten job description into an opportunity to rewrite her life.
A walk to remember
For Halvorsen, going back to school mid-career began with a walk in the park. Her fears about her job were at their height when she and her niece, Halle Branscum, went for a stroll. Halvorsen, then 45, was at a loss.
“At my age, with no degree, I’m not going to be hirable,” she told her niece. “No one will even see your application if you don’t have a college degree.”
It was 2016, and Branscum had just completed her associate degree at LCCC. At Branscum’s graduation ceremony, the message Ballinger delivered stuck with Halvorsen: You’re never too old to achieve your dreams.
Halvorsen had repeated that message to her niece, but Branscum turned the tables.
“You need to listen to your own advice,” she said.
From there, things happened quickly. Directly after their walk, from the parking lot, Halvorsen called LCCC for an appointment.
There was an opening in one hour.
“Suddenly, I was strapped in the roller coaster,” Halvorsen says.
That afternoon, she met with a counselor, discussed her options and enrolled to pursue an associate degree in general studies. It was official — she was going back to school.
Tears, then triumph
Halvorsen was a long way from the day in 1995 when she sat at LCCC and cried tears of both joy and sadness. While working toward her medical lab technician degree and doing clinicals at Elyria Memorial Hospital, she learned she was pregnant.
“I had been told I couldn’t have kids,” she says. “They were wrong.”
But that meant making concessions, most notably leaving school. Halvorsen was on the verge of becoming the first member of her family to graduate college, but she wanted to focus on her son. And that meant withdrawing from LCCC.
“I was extremely happy because I’d always wanted a child,” she says. “But part of me felt like I was letting go of my dreams.”
She threw herself into caring for her son, Stephen Seiber. He was diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism, so she got involved with Elyria schools as a parent mentor for families of children with autism. She sat on the Autism Society of Greater Cleveland’s childhood collaborative and changed jobs to be home to help Stephen with homework.
And instead of lowering academic expectations for her son, Halvorsen raised them. He told friends his mom was his “best friend and worst nightmare,” because she pushed him to succeed.
“She pushed me hard; I wouldn’t be where I am without her,” says Seiber, who earned his associate degree from LCCC through its Early College High School program while still in high school and went on to Bowling Green State University.
Flipping the script
When Halvorsen completed her associate degree in general studies in December 2017 and walked at commencement, she was far from done. She pursued a bachelor’s degree in technical and applied studies from Ohio University through LCCC’s University Partnership program, continuing to thrive in a supportive LCCC environment.
“Nobody looks at the gray and says, ‘You’ll never do this,’” she says. “They say, ‘If you can dream it, let’s help you get there.’”
Halvorsen completed her bachelor’s degree in May 2018, and her commencement aligned with her son’s graduation from Bowling Green and Branscum’s graduation from Cleveland State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology through LCCC’s University Partnership.
Halvorsen didn’t want to miss their graduations, so she skipped her own. But the fact that she graduated on the same day as her son had significance for him.
“It made me feel a little less guilty for ruining her career,” jokes Seiber, 24, who is working toward his master’s degree in film at Boston University.
Now, at 48, Halvorsen is working toward her master’s degree in business administration from Ohio University and expects to graduate in August 2020.
“I’d like to work at a community college to help people like me succeed,” she says. “It’s true what Dr. Ballinger said. You’re never too old. At LCCC, they’ll help you find what you need to make it happen. If you’re all in, they’re all in with you.”