Jennifer’s Story

CIAIn 1990, I graduated from The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY.  While working as a young chef, I consulted with the local community college to bring a culinary arts apprenticeship program to Iowa.  Ours would be the first degree program of its kind in our state and it was precisely the kind of project I loved.  My passion shined through because despite lacking a master’s degree, they hired me to run the program I’d helped create!  It was a tremendous job, but it felt like playtime; I found my lane in college administration, the perfect use of my skill set.  Years later, when we wanted to start a family, a switch flipped in my head, and just like that, I knew my most important job was being his mom, so I decided to quit working full time and focus on building a family.

Chef Jennifer (top right) and her students pose after winning a gold medal in 1998

My college employer was terrific.  Rather than let me quit, they allowed me to stay on in any capacity I wanted- I could name it.  So, I arranged a situation that allowed me to teach part-time while retaining my role as Chairman of Culinary Apprenticeship, and the leader of Curriculum Development – all from home. I kept that schedule for almost two decades.

Over time, we added more children, and I started homeschooling. Pre-internet homeschooling was a lonely proposition.  I relied on homeschool books and magazines to “connect” me to other homeschoolers and keep me inspired.  In real life, I knew maybe one or two people who were homeschooling. As time went on, and my oldest was in about 7th grade, I felt incredible doubt that I’d have the ability to get him into college. Even though I was a good homeschool mom, I wasn’t sure I’d be a good homeschool guidance counselor, and strongly considered sending each of our kids “to school” once they hit 9th grade.

I started reading everything I could find about how to get a homeschool teen into college.  The selection was tiny (which just added to my fear) so I started looking for information on general college admissions.  I was unfamiliar with a lot of the “college application process” as it appeared in these books since I’d attended a less-traditional culinary program, not a four-year university.  What I discovered, was that the mountain of information was really for one type of student- the traditional student scholar who wanted to apply to a competitive college.  They were the same content with different covers, designed to assure you fit the mold of what colleges expected in an applicant. Alternatives like distance learning, military, apprenticeship, trade school, or community college were always presented in a negative light, and having spent two decades working in the community college system and the world of apprenticeship, I felt that some of the positives were being left out.  Sure, there were pros and cons, but almost everything I found made me feel like a second-class citizen for even considering community college for my kids. I still felt unsure of how we would navigate the process, so I kept looking for help.

My research looked like a giant Venn diagram:  set 1 contained mainstream traditional colleges- only relevant to homeschool families with strong academics, a big savings account, or scholarship potential. This set wasn’t very “homeschool friendly” if you were average or didn’t follow a high school recipe perfectly.  Set 2 held alternative college options that I didn’t understand.  These included correspondence programs, alternative training, unaccredited schools, new “online colleges,” and many less-than-appealing choices.  There was nothing at the intersection for my family.  I wondered where average homeschooled kids went to college. When my trusted homeschool magazines wrote about “homeschool friendly” colleges; I knew we’d have an uphill battle.  I had to prepare to take what we could get.  It looked like the individuality we’d celebrated as a homeschool family was coming to a screeching halt.  It was time play ball.

While I worried at home about how my children would attend college, I had a big problem brewing at work, and I had no idea how it would change my life forever.  Our program wasn’t graduating students- at all.   Each semester we’d admit about 30 apprentices, but in a good year, we’d graduate just 1 or 2. You see, our apprentices were required to work five days per week and take all of their culinary courses on campus each Monday.  This arrangement was perfect for them, and almost all of our students made it to their last semester.  The problem in the last semester was an impossible situation. Since a handful of general education courses were required to graduate, students would have to come to class 4-5 days a week to take English, Speech, and Psychology instead of going to work.  Though not officially discussed, if an apprentice wanted to graduate, they’d have to quit their job.  It was impossible to be in two places at once, so overwhelmingly, students chose to walk away from their degree.  For them, a job held more value than a piece of paper. This was a big problem, a problem that I could fix today, but I couldn’t fix them.  Back then, I didn’t know about CLEP.clep.png

Back at home, one of the college books I read mentioned Advanced Placement and CLEP exams as a means of earning college credit without spending time in a classroom.  Credit by exam.  Suspicious of the idea, I went to my colleagues in the testing center and asked if this was legitimate.  They assured me that it was legitimate, that we were an official CLEP testing center, and that our students could accumulate up to 45 credits (75% of their degree) by CLEP exam.  Despite having 14 years of student advising under my belt at that time, I’d never even heard the word CLEP.  When I looked it up, sure enough, it was buried deep inside my student advising manual.  Why was I left to learn about this on my own?   The answer was simple. Colleges have minimal incentive to offer up this kind of information. When students use exams like AP or CLEP, colleges don’t receive tuition dollars, meet student enrollment numbers, or sell textbooks. It’s not that colleges are lying, it’s merely a case of remaining quiet.  As I started researching the acceptance of CLEP, AP, and other exam credit, I found that almost every college accepted credit by exam in some amount.  Also, I found that the general education courses required of my apprentices could all be met through CLEP.  That day changed everything for me, and I was determined to help my students finish their apprenticeship and graduate with their degree using CLEP exams. But first, I had to know if they were too hard to pass.

I picked up a Psychology textbook from our bookstore, read the book, and took the multiple choice CLEP exam.  I passed.  Wow.  Did I earn three college credits? In an hour?  So, I did it again.  And again.  Using books our campus was throwing away, I’d read chapter after chapter while hold my nursing baby or after our homeschool day ended.  Since pursuing higher education wasn’t in our family’s budget, I’d fund my CLEP testing by saving coins in a jar: When I’d saved enough, I’d empty my jar and take an exam.  After passing the exam, I’d start saving again.  Some people play bridge, I played CLEP. I was hooked!  For six months, I’d passed enough exams to earn an associate’s degree.

Itesu’ll skip ahead, and tell you that I enrolled at Thomas Edison State University (formerly Thomas Edison State College) as a distance learning student. TESU is a fully accredited state college that happens to be very CLEP friendly.   I already qualified for an AA degree, and in the months that followed, I took online courses, local college courses, and other “upper level” credit by exam tests.  I finished my bachelor’s degree in 18 months with NO school debt.  While homeschooling…while raising four small children, and while nursing and changing diapers. I knew that some variation of this plan could work with my children, but I also discovered a lot of “disadvantages” to the process I followed.  For my children, and my culinary students, I no longer had to experiment to see if it “could” be done (fast, cheap, and within the parameters of a legitimate degree), now it was time to draw wisdom from my experience and be a good steward of that knowledge.

Despite my excitement, there was a lot of “yeah, buts” coming my way. Yeah but, what

Jennifer’s 8-year-old assists her during an Anatomy & Physiology Lab at home.

about science?  That’s a good question, so I completed a pre-med science program and earned acceptance into four competitive nursing programs.  I didn’t really want to be a nurse or doctor, I did (also) want to know if virtual sciences, tested-out credits, and distance learning classes were sufficient to gain admission into various programs- they were.  Yeah but, what about grad school? Surely you can’t get into graduate school if you use CLEP.  Also a good question, so I applied to 7 graduate schools.  Acceptance letters for all 7 followed.

Yeah but, what about advanced academics?  If I self-studied, could I learn enough to hold my own once I entered graduate school?  That question was tough, I wondered that too.   I decided to apply for a Master’s of Science program open only to registered dietitians (though I’m not one).  I made a case for admission in my essay, arguing that I’d taught culinary nutrition for years (that’s true) and that the science courses I took through distance learning should be viewed as equivalent to the sequence taken by dietitians in their undergraduate study.  I was accepted, and on May 14, 2014, I graduated from Canisius College with a Master’s of Science degree in Nutrition.  My science knowledge was frequently tested in that program (in fairness, my biochemistry knowledge is well below standard), but I graduated wearing an honor cord, something my traditionally educated cohorts did not earn. My GPA was in the top 2% of graduate students that year which rewarded me entrance to the Alpha Sigma Nu national honor society.

jen graduation
Fellow classmate and Jennifer at Canisius College graduation (2014)

One final test, what about getting a job?  Can you get a job if you use CLEP or distance learning? What will employers think? Degree in hand, this 44-year-old homeschooling mother of 4 walked into the most prestigious university in my state and applied for a nutrition research position.  With zero research experience, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill hired me to work with their world-renowned scientists at the Nutrition Research Institute (they’ve been on Oprah).  The principal investigator told me she didn’t think they’d be able to “get me” for the job given my impressive background (undergraduate culinary degree with the wrong kind of accreditation, a bachelor’s degree earned almost entirely by testing out, and a graduate degree in nutrition earned entirely online).  I quit after one semester, after all, I have kids to homeschool.  That brings me to today.

If you didn’t know me, you might think my story is about pride, or puffing myself up to impress you.  My story is neither – it’s about dispelling myths.  Every step of the way, I’ve tested high school myths, homeschool myths, curriculum myths, distance learning myths, employment myths, scholarship myths, college transfer myths, student loan myths, and dozens more.  I’ve found 99.99% of them are full of bull.  Scary “yeah buts” can prevent parents from taking steps in a direction that can help them accomplish great things.  Do you know how often people told me something “couldn’t” happen or “wasn’t” allowed?  Only to find out later that they were wrong.  Eventually, testing other people’s myths becomes boring, expensive, and a waste of time!  If I leave you with one impression, it is to be brave when other people are trying to scare you.  The truth is that most people never challenge any of the myths they believe, yet they’ll impress them on you as if they were the truth.

If you’re a homeschool family, I already know you’re brave.  I also know that you’ve made a great sacrifice to line your kids up with a good education and a bright future.  You already have the foundation to handle this next season or stage with ease, now you have to find your confidence for this phase.  Much of the high school to college process is designed to intimidate you into compliance so by the time you’ve read hundreds of web pages, applied to dozens of colleges, are willing to mortgage your home and tap your 401K, you’re so beat down that you’ll gladly send your child to any college that will take them.  Instead of surrendering your authority to the experts, I hope instead to inspire you to take on the role of the expert in your homeschool.

Since founding the Homeschooling for College Credit community on Facebook, I’ve met thousands of homeschool families.  Almost every parent feared the things I feared and wanted the things I wanted. We all wanted to graduate our children from homeschool, to help them earn a legitimate college degree or trade certificate, get them on track for a self-supporting career, and not go bankrupt in the process. If those are your family’s goals, they align with mine too, and you should find that Homeschooling for College Credit will serve as a tremendous resource for you.

Our family now lives in North Carolina, which is a fantastic state to homeschool for college credit.  We’ve graduated two sons, and two more are close behind.  I’ve ended my educational experiment (I have four degrees if you were counting) but the future for my children has changed.  What began as the uncertainty of homeschool graduation, college admission, college completion, is now a reality for us and it will be for you too. Thank you for hearing my story, and let’s get after it!