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From left, Sarah Corley '15, Heather Smegal '15 and Melissa Tarjick '15 are among the
first cohort of early childhood educators to graduate with their Bachelor's degrees through
MCLA's degree completion program.

First cohort of early childhood educators to graduate in May

03/27/15

MCLA’s first cohort of early childhood educators will be among the graduates to walk the Commencement stage this May as they receive their Bachelor’s degrees – something many of them had thought might never be possible.

Accomplished through our degree completion program, the Bachelor of Arts degree in interdisciplinary studies for early childhood educators is the first of three such programs offered by MCLA.

“When I first learned of the MCLA program I was both terrified and excited,” said Melissa Tarjick ’15, who works 30 hours a week as the health and well-being specialist at the Helen Berube Teen Parent Program in Pittsfield. “After four years at Berkshire Community College earning my associate degree, I was exhausted.”

However, the promise of only one night a week away from her family of nine to attend class, and an expected graduation date within two and a half years, gave her the push to apply. 

“It would have been almost impossible for me to coordinate work and family if I had to adjust my schedule each semester,” she continued.  “Had this program not come along, I am quite certain I would not be looking at graduation today.”

It had been 17 years since Sarah Corley ’15 of Hinsdale attended college when she enrolled at MCLA. A single mother of three, she also earned her Associate’s degree from BCC while working fulltime as a preschool teacher for Head Start.

“Both my sons have disabilities, so I find it challenging to balance career, college and single motherhood,” Corley explained. “But this experience has motivated me to push myself and reach for higher goals in my life. MCLA’s program has made it manageable for my busy life.”

Previously, Corley found it difficult to believe she had the power to be a successful student beyond her 20s.

“Sometimes after you get older and school has long passed by you, you tend to lose confidence in your abilities to learn and be a good student. I found that confidence again and it helps me feel more powerful in all areas of my life,” she said.

MCLA’s cohort model, Corley said, allowed her to benefit from the support of her fellow students.

“We keep each other motivated and help each other when we get overwhelmed,” she explained.  “It’s a much more constructive model for nontraditional students. That way, we don't have to feel intimidated by the younger students.”

Heather Smegal ’15 of Pittsfield, whose college career began nearly two decades ago and ended soon after she became pregnant during her first semester, said her cohort experience “far surpassed” her expectations.

“This was not just any cohort, but one that was filled with women just like me. We had not only our professions in common but so much more. Some, like me, were single moms working two jobs, and were out of school for many years,” Smegal explained.

“In this cohort I found a support system that was crucial to my success, and I formed lifelong friendships,” Smegal continued.  “In a typical degree program you usually don’t have people that are in every class with you, but I got to go start to finish with these ladies, and the love and support they have provided me has been priceless.”

A lead teacher at the Boys and Girls Club in the pre-Kindergarten class, Smegal always knew she needed to earn her Bachelor’s degree, “But it just never seemed like the right time. Then, in 2012, I attended a meeting for the MCLA degree completion program and the cohort format seemed like the perfect opportunity to finish what I had started so long ago. I am so glad that I made that life-changing decision!”

The day after she and her classmates graduate with their Bachelor’s degrees, Tarjick will turn 40. 

“To accomplish this goal gives me such pride,” she said. “So many times I have felt I was not smart enough, strong enough, or motivated enough to finish.  I can’t imagine a better birthday present to myself than this degree.”

For more information, contact Barbara Emanuel, program coordinator for graduate and continuing education, (413) 662-5576, or b.emanuel@mcla.edu.