Meet 54 year old UWW student and winner of the UWW Edward Harris Scholarship- Jane Norton of Chilmark, Martha's Vineyard. Enrolled as a traditional age UMass Amherst student back in the 80's, Jane left on academic probation after the death of her father. Now a yoga instructor, Jane has returned to the university three decades later to complete her bachelor's degree with a focus in Integrative Psychology through the University Without Walls and to prepare for the next phase of her educational journey - graduate school.
Every non-traditional age student has a story. What’s your story?
I have lived in New England my entire life. I was born in New Hampshire but moved to Massachusetts as a child. I live in the town of Chilmark, on Martha’s Vineyard, and have been here on the “Island of Misfit Toys” since 1996. I was first enrolled at UMass Amherst in the fall of 1981. My dad died a few weeks into my freshman year of an aggressive lung cancer - almost 10 years to the day of the anniversary of my mother’s passing. I went home for a week, and then returned to campus and acted as though nothing had happened, trying to just be “normal.” I never accessed any UMass support services to help me deal with bereavement - so it dealt with me.
Long story short, I flunked out. I spent some time at UMass Dartmouth and did better there, but dropped out. I worked in garden design and installation on Cape Cod, then moved to the Vineyard. I started my own gardening business, and to deal with the stress of being a small business owner, I started taking yoga classes, and decided I wanted to become a yoga teacher. I sold my gardening business and I’ve been teaching yoga since 2004. I am a certified Anusara yoga teacher. This school of yoga is based on sound biomechanical principles of alignment, underscored by an uplifting non-dual philosophy. In my classes, I help my students build strength, flexibility, and a new understanding of what they are capable of on the mat, and sometimes off the mat, too. I specialize in helping people with chronic pain issues and rehabilitation from injuries, and how the mind and body deal with physical and psychological trauma.
In 2012, I cofounded the Anusara School of Hatha Yoga (ASHY), an international teacher’s organization responsible for the training and licensing of Anusara yoga teachers, with members in over 21 countries. ASHY grew and in 2016, became a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. With ASHY’s organizational structure in the capable hands of experienced non-profit professionals, I was relieved to step away from my operational duties. Suddenly I had a lot more free time. One night, staring at the computer, I asked myself, “What would I do if I could do anything?” and the answer was to return to a long lost career goal and become a licensed psychotherapist. I knew that meant going back to school. Because I live on an island, my options were limited, but I remembered a friend that had gotten his degree through UWW. A few mouse clicks later, I began the application for re-admission to UMass Amherst to complete my degree through the University Without Walls.
My degree concentration is Integrative Psychology. UWW made it possible for to blend my Psychology, Sociology, and Public Health courses with my training and experience as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist.
Why did you choose UMass Amherst UWW to complete your degree?
I live on an island. Even though geographically I’m still in Massachusetts, and closer to Amherst as the crow flies than many UWW students, logistics are an issue; I have to bring my car to the mainland via ferry, which is time consuming and expensive, and sometimes impossible in the summer. Being able to earn my degree was crucial, as was the “Fresh Start” policy that allowed me to keep the credits I’d earned in the 1980’s without being penalized by my low GPA. My current lifestyle is much different than it was in 1981. The fact that I don’t go to keg parties anymore is reflected in my academic success! The “Fresh Start” policy gave me the opportunity to prove to myself (and others) that I was capable of achieving academic success. I’ve made the most of that opportunity, and my GPA this time around is north of 3.75. Knowing my diploma is being granted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst means a lot to me, personally and professionally. I’ve come full circle.
What is the best part about being a UWW student for you?
My advisor, Lisa Fontes, is stellar. I got to know some of my fellow students in our Frameworks of Understanding degree planning class and we’ve been in other classes together since. In my “regular” UMass courses, it’s really nice to have someone else there that’s from UWW because I know that I’m not the only non-traditional student in the class (In other words - I’m not the only one old enough to be everyone else’s mother!).
What has been your favorite class at UMass Amherst so far?
Hmm…that’s a toss-up between UWW 191 Frameworks of Understanding with Lisa Fontes, Ph. D., Abnormal Psychology with Prof. Katie Newkirk and Behavioral Neuroscience with Prof. Amanda Hamel.
What does winning the Edward Harris scholarship mean to you?
One of the reasons I was able to enroll in the UWW program was because my husband was a Commonwealth of Massachusetts employee. As such, my tuition was reduced by 50%, which made it affordable. Unfortunately, his job was eliminated because of fiscal year 2018 budget cuts. My tuition doubled on the same day that our income plummeted by 70%. Luckily, a family member stepped in to help with fall 2017 tuition. Then, two weeks into the fall semester, I fell and broke my right arm in two places. Now I was out of work, too, but as a self-employed person I don’t have unemployment benefits or disability coverage. The Edward Harris Scholarship was a lifeline - it enabled me to take a required General Education course this January so I can take another upper level psychology course in spring 2018.
What have been the benefits of taking your courses online?
I get to structure my coursework around my schedule, and adjust as needed. I also like being able to replay the lectures as needed, something not possible when I was an undergrad in the early 1980’s. This was really helpful for Statistics and Behavioral Neuroscience. Plus there have been times I’ve done my coursework on a lounge chair in my perennial garden! It’s nice being able to travel and take my classroom with me, too.
How do you balance work, school and other responsibilities?
When I know I have the house to myself, I’ll block that time to concentrate on schoolwork. I’ve had to improve my communication skills in my marriage, too! My husband now understands that just because I’m in the room, I’m not necessarily available to interact with him. This took some practice - my “classroom” is really just a corner of the living room. Clearly communicating when I need quiet time to study or exams has helped, and after a while, it became part of our regular conversations. I’ve also learned to rely on him more for household errands, chores, and shopping. There’s other benefits to negotiating these boundaries and prioritizing my course work. When I’m done with my work, I’m done, and I’m fully available to watch a movie or hang out. Being able to completely unplug is good for my stress level - and our marriage. It can get lonely, though. I have a real-life "study buddy”, a friend enrolled in a distance learning program at another college. We meet up at our local library to do our work sometimes. Having a real person in the room to run stuff by is helpful in the moment. Also, yoga.
What advice do you have for other students finishing their degrees?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself, and if you don’t understand the response you’re given, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. If life throws you curve balls don’t take it as a sign that you should drop out of school - talk to your advisor and your instructors and let them know what’s going on. Give yourself a break, and make sure to step away from the computer and play for a little bit every day - move your body, walk the dog, play with your kids, eat well, drink water, make time for your significant other, and acknowledge and celebrate your worthiness and achievements. Most people don’t go back to school again. You did. Go forth and amaze us all.
What are your plans for the future- professional and personally?
I’m applying for graduate programs right now in counseling psychology and social work; I plan to work as a therapist helping people with PTSD, depression, and anxiety with a holistic approach that includes innovative, evidence-based treatment modalities and the ancient wisdom of yoga, shamanic healing, and plant medicines. Personally, I want to get really good at baking sourdough bread, learn to play guitar, and travel.
Tell readers something cool about yourself that no one would guess about you.
I’ve done a handstand at the base of Victoria Falls in Livingstone, Zambia. I’ve been to about 100 Grateful Dead shows, and I rescued a starving puppy from a Costa Rican beach in 2003. He’s sleeping at my feet right now at the ripe old age of 15!
I traveled by myself to Washington, DC for the 2017 Women’s March. I was standing in the crowd of over 600,000 people a block from the main stage when one of the featured speakers (one of my summer yoga students) literally ran right into me as she was being escorted to the backstage area. She gave me a hug, her partner grabbed my arm, saying, “Come with us!” and I spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out in the VIP area!
Please add anything else you want people to know about you, your family, your story.
I have been married to my husband Jeremy since 2006, and we share our lives with Bravo, the "Costa Rican Tourist Hound” I mentioned above, and Jemma, a German Shepherd mix, and Kali, a little black cat. I have been graced with unexpected blessings throughout my life and I’m grateful for all of my experiences. Writer Molly Fumia puts it like this in her poem Resurrection: “We give thanks for all those times we have arisen from the depths or simply taken a tiny step toward something new. May we be empowered by extraordinary second chances.”