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‘It’s going to be a beautiful day’: Retired military couple celebrate degrees from McKendree

Doug Smith and wife Adrienne, of Mascoutah, take a break from studies to sit on their patio. They will graduate from McKendree University May 9.
Doug Smith and wife Adrienne, of Mascoutah, take a break from studies to sit on their patio. They will graduate from McKendree University May 9. News-Democrat

Doug and Adrienne Smith have reason to celebrate.

The Mascoutah couple will graduate from McKendree University on Saturday. Doug, 51, will be awarded a bachelor’s in business administration with an emphasis in management. Adrienne, 56, will receive her master’s in business administration.

“We’re graduating the same day, different times,” said Adrienne. “He’s in the morning. I am in the afternoon. It’s going to be a beautiful day.”

A couple weeks out, they had papers to write, tests to take, projects to complete.

“The hardest part is the last two classes that I am taking online,” Adrienne said, sitting on their patio looking out on a spring green lawn she had just cut. Their chocolate Lab, Leo, ambled by for a pat on the back. “I’m organizing a party for close friends and family. I’ve reserved everything. We have to get our heads out of the party and back to school. It’s also our 20th wedding anniversary.”

Doug’s son (Doug II) and three grandkids are coming from Indiana, and her sister will make the trip from Oregon. A cousin from Maryland and friends are expected from near and far.

“We want people to relax at our party because that’s what we plan to do,” said Adrienne.

The retired military couple, who both have full-time jobs, attend classes in the evening. Dinners are catch-as-catch-can.

“Monday, crock pot,” said Adrienne, a paralegal for the U.S. Department of Justice in Fairview Heights. “Tuesday, salads from Jefferson’s, Wednesday, crock pot or leftovers.....”

And so on.

“We see each other in passing, and there are times we don’t see each other for a day or two,” said Adrienne. “Our longest stretch? Three days.”

“I am up and out the door before she’s awake,” said Doug, a network administrator for a government contractor in St. Louis. “I won’t see her till 10:30 at night.”

He starts work at 6 a.m. and has classes till 9:40 three nights a week.

They email and text.

“Our daughter (Codi) has been wonderful,” said Adrienne. “She’s a junior in high school. We talked with her before we went back. She’s picked up some of the slack around the house.”

And helped her parents with math.

“I guess I am proud of them,” said Codi, who got used to seeing her parents less. “I am getting older, more independent.”

“She taught me how to use a TI-84 (graphing) calculator,” said Doug. “What a monster that is.”

Back to school

The Smiths chose McKendree because the liberal arts university in Lebanon had the programs they wanted and was close.

“Wherever you go, it’s what you take out that counts,” said Adrienne.

Doug began pursuing his bachelor’s degree in 2011.

“I had two associate degrees,” he said. “I would like to get a little more ahead. The only way to get ahead is to get a bachelor’s degree. You don’t see someone in management without one. I went in as a junior. I took a year off in 2012. I had a stroke.”

He was at work when he realized something was wrong.

“My mouth didn’t do what I was telling it to. Someone asked me a question. I turned around and started talking in jibberish.”

Attentive co-workers quickly called medical staff.

“By the time they got to me, most of my symptoms had cleared up,” he said. “I had a nice four-day vacation in the hospital.”

And a year off from school.

“You started back in August (2013),” said Adrienne, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force. “I started in October. I decided if he was going back to school, so was I ... When I spoke to the director of the program (Frank Spreng), I said, ‘If I am going to do this, I want to graduate with my husband.’ He said, ‘I think we can do that.’”

Adrienne had earned her bachelor’s degree in applied sciences in paralegal studies from McMurray University in Abilene, Texas.

“Being in the Air Force, it took me 10 years to finish,” she said. “When I got into this program, I wanted to get it done quickly. It was meant to be. It wasn’t as bad as I thought. I enjoyed classes.”

In the condensed program, she started a new class every five weeks. Economics was her first.

“I wanted to pull my hair out,” said Adrienne. “It had been 16 years since my first undergraduate class. It was a lot to get back to the study mode.”

The MBA program at McKendree caters to students such as Adrienne.

“Our whole program is at night and essentially created for and structured for part-time students who on average have full-time jobs or other responsibilities,” said Spreng. “As far as I can tell, (Adrienne) can juggle pretty well. The reality is graduate school does take time.”

He talks to potential students about expectations.

“If they’re pretty old in terms of going to graduate school, in their 50s or 60s, and expecting a gigantic impact on their career, it’s probably not realistic,” he said. “They don’t have enough time left in their career to do that. The push an MBA can give you doesn’t have the same financial benefit as if you were in your 20s or 30s.”

But there are still benefits.

“All learn things they didn’t know,” said Spreng. “They develop skills they didn’t have. They get a lot of what I call ‘food for thought.’ It gives them a different outlook. At any age, they will benefit.”

Adrienne didn’t mind being an older student.

“It’s a smaller group for the master’s program,” she said. “I have formed some really great friendships. The other students have been a great help. You learn teamwork. When you want to tear out your hair, (you say), ‘You do this. I will do that.’ ... I am not computer friendly. I am computer tolerant.”

At home, Doug is tech support for his family.

Adrienne’s classes were on the Lebanon campus and online. Doug’s met at McKendree’s Center at Scott Air Force Base.

“My courses are accelerated as well ... Professors can load you up. You just push on,” he said.

Their beginning

Adrienne was born outside Cleveland, Ohio.

Doug, who describes himself as an “Air Force brat,” moved with his family to Mascoutah in 1968. “I joined the Air Force in ’82 and retired back here January 1, 2007.”

They met when both were stationed in Korea.

“We were friends,” said Doug. “Then it evolved. I’d say, ‘This is my Korean wife.’”

Together, they look forward to more career opportunities.

“I’m open to anything that comes my way,” said Adrienne. “I enjoy what I do. I have used a lot of what I learned in my job. I believe opportunities present themselves when they need to be presented. Everything I have done in my whole life, when it’s right, it happens for me.”

After graduation, the Smiths will be able to get back to hiking and biking, gardening and vacations.

“We have one planned for after Codi finishes school,” said Doug.

They will make several stops in Florida, including Legoland and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla. Doug, who enjoys scuba diving, plans to snorkel with manatees.

It’s a reward for all their hard work.

“I am glad I did it,” said Adrienne.

“I am glad it’s over,” said Doug.

For now.

Adrienne is considering going for another master’s degree or a doctorate. Doug can’t get enough school, either.

“I will be starting next year on my MBA,” he said. “That’s the plan.”

Advice on going back to college

The beginning: “It’s frightening, but it’s doable,” said Adrienne. “Once you get through the first class, it’s routine.”

Take breaks when you need them, and just keep on going.

If you need help, ask.

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