To get to her new office at HCC, Karen Rock merely moved across the hall. After spending nearly two decades in the Financial Aid office (Frost 221), Rock took over last month as coordinator of the New Directions program (Frost 232).
Though the walk was short, the journey has been a long one. At the same time, it is also a homecoming. Rock is a 1997 graduate of HCC and went through New Directions herself.
"It means a lot to me to come full circle and give back to a program that gave so much to me," says Rock.
New Directions is a Holyoke Community College "student success" program, offering counseling, support and guidance to "nontraditional" students, specifically, those aged 24 and older, single parents, veterans and those currently serving in the U.S. military.
New Directions advisors (there are two: Rock, who is full time, and Lori Wayson, who is part time) help students connect with services that can improve their college experience, from financial aid and military benefits to college and community resources, such as fuel assistance or food stamps.
"Income is an issue. Daycare is an issue. We have many many students who, in order to come here, they have to be able to afford to live," says Wayson. "Ninety-nine times out of 100, when someone has to withdraw from school, it's not because they can't do the academics, it's because life happened. Life just happens."
That's the way it was for Rock.
She initially enrolled at HCC in 1976. She completed one semester, then got pregnant and developed anemia. Too sick to attend, she stopped going to school but never officially withdrew.
"I got all Fs in my classes and was academically dismissed," she says.
A single parent, she spent the next 18 years working as a waitress and tending bar until a shoulder injury made carrying trays of food impossible.
"What am I gonna do?" she remembers thinking. "I have to support myself and my son."
She didn't think she could go back to HCC after being kicked out. A counselor at the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Center, though, referred her to New Directions. Rock was readmitted to the college as a Fresh Start student, effectively wiping her slate clean.
"Long story short," Rock says. "It changed my life."
New Directions has evolved a lot over the last 40 years. It started in the 1970s as a "displaced homemakers" program for divorced women and women reentering the workforce. The 15-week program offered classes in typing, transcription, shorthand, accounting and other administrative skills.
In 1979, the "Women in Business" program started offering support services for women who wanted to pursue degrees in accounting and business administration. Later, the program was modified to include liberal arts degrees and renamed "Women in Transition."
By the time Rock returned to HCC in 1995, the program was called "New Directions." Back then, the school allocated a certain number of classroom seats for New Directions students. In addition to their academic classes, New Directions students had to take orientation classes before the semester began, including one in career development and another in study skills.
"It was an intensive week where you met students just like you," says Rock. "We went to the Career Center, and we researched jobs, and we learned how to study because we had been out of school for a while."
Since then, New Directions has expanded to include nontraditional men and, most recently, veterans, active military personnel and their families. New Directions receives referrals from other HCC departments, often Financial Aid.
"Financial Aid is often the first point of contact for New Directions students," says Rock. "At some point, students realize they won't be coming if they can't afford to pay. I've referred students many times down to New Directions over the years."
In fact, it was her New Directions advisor who sent Rock to Financial Aid, where she got her first job at HCC as a work-study student.
"Work-study might seem like a very small paycheck, but it can make all the difference in the world," Rock says.
It did to her.
At the time, she often couldn't afford to pay her electric bill and gas bill in the same month. She couldn't afford a telephone. "I was a single parent on welfare, a limited income and food stamps," recalls Rock, who grew up in South Hadley and now lives in Chicopee.
Rock was hired full-time clerk in Financial Aid in 1997 and changed jobs several times within the department, to staff assistant and senior financial aid counselor and finally associate director.
She wasn't just working all those years. Rock was going to school. First, she earned her certificate in office systems and then her associate degree in business administration. She graduated from HCC Phi Theta Kappa, with a 3.8 GPA.
She earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Massachusetts through the school's University Without Walls program and her master's degree from the Isenberg School of Management.
She completed all her degrees part time, as a nontraditional student.
So, she knows what it's like to go to college filled with doubts, fears and questions: "Can I really do this? Will I really fit in? Is it too late for me?"
And Rock knows the answers:
"I think sharing my own experience with New Directions students now will help them do what I did when I didn't have the confidence that I could do it."
Photos: (Left) New Directions coordinators Lori Wayson, left, and Karen Rock.(Right) New Directions coordinator Karen Rock, right, talks to a student.