Resuming a Dream Deferred: Donnelly Returns to a Transformed University

By schwartzsa | October 8, 2012

Wearing scarlet and grey and lifting the School of Continuing Studies banner, Pat Schwartz-Donnelly marched with more pride than most at the 2012 University Convocation. Honored to represent hundreds of students who juggle busy work schedules, family commitments and other time constraints to achieve their professional goals, she also was celebrating the continuation of her own journey—one that began almost 35 years ago.

Following the first classroom meeting in her return to campus, Donnelly settled into a seat on the patio outside of Easton Café overlooking the water feature. With the warmth of the early autumn sun and the sound of cascading water, it was an opportunity to reflect on her unpredictable journey.

Donnelly was a freshman at Beaver College in the fall of 1977. She remembers the excitement of living on campus, and an extraordinary first semester. Although she excelled in the sciences and declared a first-year Biology major with a Pre-med concentration, her real passion was theater. She recalls participating in every theater production of the 1977-78 academic year, including Jay Presson Allen’s stage adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. However, at the end of an emotionally challenging spring term, Donnelly learned she was pregnant and ultimately resolved to defer her educational and professional dreams.

New Role, New Challenges

A mother of five with a full-time job, Donnelly found that getting to traditionally scheduled classes on time, let alone completing assignments, was nearly impossible. Her professional goals seemed to be slipping further away.

“I went to Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) for a couple of years—by then I had become a full-time wife and mother,” she says. “I had to work, so school had been out of my dreams for a very, very long time.” It wasn’t until her son graduated from Temple University in 2007 that she considered going back to school.

She won a full scholarship to CCP through Graduate Philadelphia!, an initiative to help adults return to college. Donnelly completed nine courses and earned an associate’s degree in Liberal Studies with honors in 2011.

An Emotional Homecoming

Committed to earning a bachelor’s degree, she returned to Arcadia University for the first time since she left in 1978. It was an emotional homecoming.

“It was awesome to see the growth, to see what’s been done. It’s amazing. At first, the process was daunting, it was scary,” she says of the financial commitment. And more, the thought of leaving her position as Sales Associate in Men’s Tailored Clothing at Sacs Fifth Avenue at Franklin Mills for something unknown was always in the back of her mind.

She admits to wrestling with the questions, “Will I be employable? Will an employer see the gifts I can bring to their business?” She has quieted these fears with a simple resolve: “I just have to believe I have a little edge,” she says. “I’m not ready to stop. I have a lot of life to live and a whole lot to give.”

After transferring her credits to Arcadia and completing several online courses during the 2011-12 academic year, Donnelly found that she missed the classroom experience. Now she is enrolled in Inside-Out, an experiential course that takes place at a Philadelphia County prison and is affiliated with the national Inside/Out program. The class fulfills Arcadia’s Global Connections Experience requirement—and for Donnelly, it’s one step closer to finishing what she started.

In the future, Donnelly hopes to begin a career in social work, specifically elder care. “I love a challenge—I thrive on it. And this is a great time of life. I don’t feel like my time is up or that my journey has ended. I feel like it’s just begun.”